#40 Fault lines
This is the third part of a more extended series of updates (‘book’) about abundance and how our cultures’ legacy can shape a better tomorrow. If you’re new, feel free to read the first and second installments first.
The quest for new culture models happens in many places around the world. Against a backdrop of globalization, urbanization, and digitization, ambitious and talented artists and culture workers are innovating ceaselessly, often to counter the side effects of these global trends – ecosystem destruction, rising inequality, and the decline of democracy. The quest has seen artists and exhibition designers stand up to defend native lands against pipelines. It has brought libraries to besieged towns. The pursuit has seen ancient towns revived and new communities enlivened. What I mean to say is, when we think about new culture models, many answers are already out there – just not very evenly distributes.
I want to begin our quest at the fault lines, the places where the significant trends mentioned before come face to face with their worst consequences. In geology, a fault line is where a fracture in the earth's plates becomes apparent at the surface. I take the word from Paolo Rumiz's intriguing travelogue, The Fault Line, however. Rumiz travels through Europe along the old Iron Curtain. In geology, fault lines are represented by dramatic features in the landscape. Rumiz's fault line, and the ones I will refer to, are equally dramatic, although less obviously apparent. In Rumiz's book, the fault line is where eastern and western Europe meet. Globally, there are countless such fault lines – where digitization meets democracy, urbanization meets inequality, and where globalization comes eye to eye with people's native communities and lands.
The earth's surface changes most visible at the fault lines. Likewise, our cultures and their organization often innovate fastest where the tensions and conflicts are highest.
One artist that has become a master at playing with the fault lines is the French photographer JR. From the wall separating Palestine and Israel to the wall separating Mexico and the US, he's initiated projects that bridge divides in innovative ways. His excellent radar for the whereabout of contemporary fault lines also shows where culture plays or may play a unique role for people. His projects in San Francisco (The Chronicles of San Francisco, displayed in SFMOMA) and Paris (JR Au Louvre) highlight fault lines in the world's fanciest cities.
Some may say that JR's touch-and-go projects don't achieve long-term change and that his glamour outshines local talent, but then you're missing the point. On the one hand, he's providing a template for community-focused and respectful projects with a healthy dose of humor that even inexperienced cultural workers can replicate (or participate in). On the other, he's providing the google search terms to find the stellar locally embedded cultural projects that show the true impact of culture. It's a short step from JR's work in Israel to discovering the Fauzi Azar Inn with its decades-long track record of building community ties between different cultural groups through cultural heritage in Nazareth. The Fauzi Azar Inn is often referred to as a 'safe space,' where different peoples can encounter each other and discover each other's stories. In this case, stories of loss, colonialism, and gentrification. The inn's place in the historical market district and iconic and historical building link it to a (shared) past that invites guests and visitors to ask questions. It also partners with other 'safe spaces' across cultural divides to become a bridge between Christian, Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel.
While the fault lines between communities in Israel are well-known and a Fauzi Azar Inn makes obvious sense there (see Banksy), JR teaches us we may do the same in central SF or Paris. Another artist group that has picked up on this idea is the Ghana ThinkTank. Their defiant slogan: Developing the first world. Ghana ThinkTank collects problems from communities throughout the USA and Europe and sends them to think tanks they created in "developing" communities. The think tanks – which include a group of bike mechanics in Ghana, a rural radio station in El Salvador, Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in Israel, an artist collective in Iran, and a group of incarcerated girls in the Boston penal system, among others – propose solutions, which are then implemented in the "first world." One of my favorite examples of their copying-and-pasting is the American Riad. In Detroit, a traditional Moroccan courtyard is reviving a downtrodden community. We could all use a bit of that in our neighborhoods and communities. And this is just one of their projects.
As I said in part one, culture may be the only thing we have in abundance within the planet's boundaries.
My most vivid experience at a fault line happened in one of the world's most stunning cities. It took me about two minutes to fall in love with Sarajevo. Steeped in history, conflict, and coexistence, contemporary and historical, warm as only the Balkans are, buzzing, smoke-filled, perennially ready for television, smart, OK. I visited Sarajevo for the first time in 2013 at the invitation of Cultural Heritage without Borders for one of their peacebuilding conferences. My task was digital, which we'll come back to in a later part. I remember it as a transforming experience.
For a few years, I'd been working in the cultural field after starting in international development. I had been missing the smell of hot dust and the sound of crazy traffic. Working in the cultural sector, especially when you're a white man, more often smells like champagne and sounds like hushed reference for the wealthiest person in the room. Sarajevo is not a champagne city, but its pivo definitely smells and tastes just as good. The highlight of the week I spent there was a visit to the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we visited the exhibition Sarajevo Under Siege.
The conference brought together people from across the region, many of them my age, children during the actual siege. Some of them remembering the siege, others on the other side. The simple and straightforward exhibition showed everyday objects and photography, some of them quite horrific, others unexpectedly mundane. The conference participants' stories brought the static displays to life with the typical directness and humor of people from the Balkans. On the makeshift stoves, they told me, for instance, you could make a meal and a coffee with one shoe as fuel.
Mainly, however, I remember the careful connections built between peoples because of a shared laugh, a shared experience.
Sarajevo reminded me that what I want to do in my life is build bridged across fault lines. Sarajevo showed me art, culture and heritage play a role in this respect. There's a direct link between that evening and most of the work I'm proudest of that I've done since.
Transformative experiences at the periphery of the cultural world – Sarajevo, Morocco, Nazareth – rarely transform cultural organizations at its heart. The popping of a champagne cork drowns out the subtle sound of a new interest in the other. This is why JR's work – and that of others like him – is so important. By bringing the fault lines to the center, the center may turn.
Thank you, as always, for reading, replying, forwarding. If you feel I mess up, miss something, or meddle in affairs that are not mine, please do let me know. This writing is a collective effort. Thank you in advance. Next week, an odd week will be an odd/ordinary regular irregular update. Until then, take care!