3 April 2014

What Katie Did: The Future Is Not What It Used to Be – Day 2

Beat Carnival director, David Boyd, and musician in residence 2014, Katie Richardson, are currently in Amsterdam for the Trans Europe Halles conference/meeting no. 77. 

The Future Is Not What It Used To Be is a three-day, interdisciplinary working conference on new culture strategies. Katie is blogging from the conference – here’s Day 2! (For Day 1, click here.)

Day 2: The future is not what it used to be?

Our second morning in Amsterdam started pretty easily (this would turn out to be the last easy morning!) with a nice breakfast in Apollo Museum Hotel, before the quick walk to Melkweg where the conference activity was to take place. We arrived at the impressive venue after dodging a few bikes and trams to be greeted by the friendly registration team who gave us our badges and schedule for the next few days.

After a networking lunch (with food provided by a vegan catering team, ‘Just like your mom’) we were given a tour of the building. The massive venue has many different spaces to offer and attracts around 400,000 visitors a year. It used to be a factory first producing sugar and then milk but now it houses two concert halls, a cinema, a theatre, an exhibition space and a cafe. Very impressive!

After the tour we got to see one of the spaces in action; the art gallery. It was showing a photography exhibition called ‘The rise of populism in Europe,’ which featured work from 10 different photojournalists studying emerging populism in their home countries. Two of the most moving parts for me were Andrea Gjestvang’s photographs of survivors of Anders Behring Breivik’s horrendous terrorist attacks in Norway and Ed Thompson’s graphic and sometimes humorous portrayal of the extreme right-wing English Defence League. Immediate food for thought at the start of what was to become a challenging and inspiring few days of learning and sharing experiences.

At dinner I started chatting to the people around me who represented venues and organisations from all around Europe. Some were working in the theatrical medium, some in music and some in management, but the common thread was that everyone was passionate about developing and sustaining their work/organisation, creating change and positive experiences in their communities and learning from/building relationships with the people around them. I started to feel slightly overwhelmed… in a good way.

After great conversation and wine we were shipped in to the Rabozaal space for the opening keynote speeches from Rob Riemen and Craig Schuftan. Sophie Derkzen from Vrij Nederland is the moderator and begins by saying that as people who still believe in the arts and culture being an important part of our future we are an endangered species. Personally, I have never really considered that to be the case, but perhaps that is because I am lucky to be constantly surrounded by a bubble of exciting creatives, or perhaps it’s because I so totally believe in the importance of art in all of our lives and the power that it has to be a catalyst for change and communication that I sometimes forget that not everyone feels the same. I am starting to wonder if I am a little naive or idealistic.

Left with the bracing thought that we have absolutely no idea what we are heading to we are introduced to the first keynote speaker of the night, Rob Rieman. He is a writer, cultural philosopher and founder/CEO of the Nexus Institute. The Nexus Institute is all about understanding through context and brings together the world’s foremost intellectuals, artists and politicians, and has them think and talk about the questions that really matter. How are we to live? How can we shape our future? Can we learn from our past? Which values and ideas are important, and what are their premises? Maybe he will have some answers about where we are headed?

Rieman talks about how the world is changing quickly and how this transformation, has it’s consequences; success in the past is no guarantee of success in the future. What is it that has made Western society lose so much interest in art and the exploration of new art forms, he asks? He suggest that man is being transformed into machine in our society and therefore we are taking away feelings and making things more one dimentional; emotionally hollow, aesthetically meaningless, spiritually empty. What does this mean for arts and culture? Well, Rieman tells us that arts and culture have become a side show; we now live in a post culture, a kitsch society where nothing has any intrinsic value any more. Beauty without truth. He talks about the rise of populism and how politics is no longer guided by ideas. Art, literature, philosophy are no longer critical and can even be seen as irrelevant in the world we live in.

But what can we do about this? How do we move forward. How can we convince society of the importance of art and culture. Rieman certainly seems to agree that the future is not what it used to be, but surely we are all here to come together and find positive ways to move forward?

So he leaves us with a challenge; to be wise and courageous, make a case for arts and culture in our communities, to stay strong and not to conform. He tells us that it doesn’t matter if what we do is good for the economy, what is important is the intrinsic quality of creative power; arts and culture are the only guide to a future where we can all live in dignity together.

While I came in to the room expecting a motivational speech telling us that we can achieve the impossible, I got a more challenging perspective on the reality of how arts and culture fit in to modern society. If we need to understand where we are headed in order to move forward then I am still stumped.  If I’m honest, I still find the ever hopeful optimist within me rebelling against the idea that the future is not what it used to be, but my ears are open and I am ready for the next speaker… I think…

Craig Schuftan takes the stand. He is an Australian author (of books on music and popular culture), radio producer and broadcaster currently living in Berlin.

He is also talking about the future looking at how we influence what comes after us and the idea of early dominoes; failing in the present and to succeed in later years. He uses many examples of how practitioners of the past have risked obscurity during their lifetimes to influence the art of the future. He talks about the Austrian composer Schoenberg who broke the bounds of tonal music and is now considered among the most influential composers of the 20th Century, yet was described as degenerate at the time as general society did not understand the music he made. Even Gustav Mahler, who was one of Schoenberg’s biggest influences, said he knew the importance of Schoenberg’s music despite the fact that he did not understand it.

He talks a lot about how the sounds we may be uncomfortable with now could be the sounds of the future. Think of Marty Mc Fly in ‘Back to the Future’ playing Johnny B. Goode to a room full of unwilling listeners with their fingers in their ears before stating, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet.”  So why is he telling us all this? He seems to want us to understand that some things generate rewards in a second hand way and that we should console ourselves with this. He is encouraging us to be early dominoes. He is suggesting we see the greater and wider influence in the work that we do and stay away from what is too easy, using art to express truth beyond sole entertainment. He is challenging us to be brave and different.

When I think about this more I realise that in many ways most people I know already suffer for the art they create in some way. There are so many challenges facing us as artists and organisations in both our personal and professional lives. I feel lucky to be surrounded by people who, consciously or subconsciously, produce work of great importance within our society and community. I am suddenly struck by the realisation that whether they see it or not so many people here in Northern Ireland are leaving an important legacy with each gig, play, performance, workshop, exhibition, festival they produce. Maybe if we all realised the importance of what we are doing for the future we wouldn’t give ourselves such a hard time in the present.

After a lot of thinking we drink beer, listen to music, debate and sleeeeeeeeeeeep.


[Read Katie’s entry for Day 1 here]