#44 Bolts from the blue
This is the fifth 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 to this newsletter or missed an earlier update, here’s the index so far:
We’re still exploring cultural innovation at the fault lines. This time, the fault line is storytelling. Thanks for joining!
Like a bolt from the blue, a new musical genre stormed the Dutch charts in the last decade. Nederhop — Dutch hip-hop — had been around since the late 80s/early 90s but always safely at the fringes. One or two artists gained national fame. Others made headlines for reasons beyond their music, such as when rapper Salah Edin was mixed up, repeatedly, with a convicted murderer by right-wing politicians. Apart from these moments, the music could be safely ignored.
And then, it couldn’t. Nederhop overtook the charts like it was the early days of dance music all over again. What happened?
If you had been taking all your news from traditional media — newspapers, radio — it would have been impossible to see Nederhop coming. It simply didn’t exist there. But if you had been paying attention, even slightly, it was a different story. I have listened to Nederhop on and off over the years, getting the music through file sharing, like everyone else. When Spotify replaced Napster, Nederhop quickly became the most streamed music in the Nederlands. Then, the charts started incorporating streams. From one day to the next, Nederhop arrived in mainstream culture. Artists began winning awards and elderly people humming along.
There have been more than a few bolts from the blue in the world of art and culture recently. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had to google Beeple when his digital artwork Everydays: The first 5000 days sold for almost 70 million dollars to a crypto-wealthy earlier this year. Then, I had to google NFT, and just for good measure, the blockchain once again. By the time I had the tiniest inkling of what was going on, Nyan Cat had sold for roundly 580.000 dollars. At least I had heard of Nyan Cat before — which I correlated to the significantly lower price.
One more. In recent weeks, in the Netherlands, an anti-Covid-measures collective has been able to pull off last-minute marches full of artistic and cultural expressions with thousands of participants. Strict lockdown rules notwithstanding, seemingly out of nowhere, this collective gathers, dressed up, fully prepared with banners, flags, and other expressions. Earlier this year, I was involved in organizing a climate protest. The energy and time involved to have only part of the impact of the Covid protests were considerable. It boggles my mind that people manage to gather thousands with just minutes’ notice outside of organized society. (Probably it helps to be outside of organized society and ignore Covid restrictions.)
Storytelling — getting an idea to market — has long been the domain of art and culture. Books, cinema, and exhibitions are a meeting point for people with shared beliefs and values. If you want to share an idea with the world, say a painting, there is a well-established route. For the visual arts, this route involves academies, galleries, museums, art fairs, curators, and collectors in a global power struggle. If you want to publish a book, you’ll need an agent and a publisher, distribution, and the right connections to get your book in front of the right people. If you want to sing a song… well, you know. Money, fame, and luck make this process easier for a happy few and large organizations that can throw marketing dollars at any story they like.
From the point of view of most cultural organizations, this system has been working really well. Art museums, for instance, with their beautiful brand names, will not soon run out of people that want to exhibit their work there. Theatres can choose freely from an abundance of plays and performances. Even the world’s largest libraries only have the tiniest fraction of all books available on their shelves. When it comes to telling stories, a cultural organization can do what it likes.
Consequently, by and large, they’ve been doing more of the same. Museum collections are very male and very white. Theatre is very male and very white. Books are… I think you get it. Also, how these stories are told is increasingly similar. With all the world’s stories to choose from, most people choose what they know.
What results from this may be the most exciting fault line of all: the fault line between old and new stories.
Globalization has brought all the world and its ideas closer together. Digitization has enabled everyone to find like-minded people, share, and create common expressions. Urbanization, finally, has created contexts where there are exponentially more stories than ever before. And exponentially more audiences for these stories. Combined, these trends have liberated stories from the confines of old structures.
In 2019 the Sarnámi artist Raj Mohan explained the impact of this transformation succinctly at a conference where he was invited. I paraphrase. Mohan said that before, he needed the traditional cultural organizations to be able to share his art. Occasionally he would be booked in for an evening of world culture. That felt bad, given his stellar reputation abroad, but it was all there was. Now, he has his own community, his own fan base, that accepts and applauds him unconditionally. He doesn’t need the old storytellers anymore. He can tell his own story under his own conditions. “I don’t need you anymore,” he said, pointing at the representatives of traditional cultural organizations.
Like bolts from the blue, different artists, different art, and different stories bypass and overtake the old established cultures. Globalization, urbanization, and digitization have accelerated this process. And traditional storytellers are losing their dominance.
As with the other fault lines we discussed, the conflict between old and new stories creates room for new initiatives. Places that give space to different stories in different ways. Such as when the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum handed over their entire building to indigenous Sami artists to create the Sámi Dáiddamusea to tell stories that had been unheard of hitherto. Or, very differently, when Shakespeare’s Globe traveled to 96 countries with Hamlet, adapting the play to local situations continuously. And these are examples of traditional storytellers handing over a bit of control. Beyond their control, even more exciting new initiatives arise.
For instance, one neighborhood over from where I live, a group of cultural entrepreneurs founded Prospect Eleven. The initiative is hard to describe in one sentence. It is not even one initiative. It is a coworking space and meeting place, an art gallery and consultancy, and a few more things, all aimed at giving young and talented creatives a chance in the world. It brings together an archive with a gym and creative agencies with the municipality. Places like this pop up everywhere. They may be hard to recognize to the untrained eye, although they prefer to hang out in cheap real estate in neighborhoods where cultures meet.
In the next even update, I’ll take you on a tour of some of my favorite new cultural institutions that exist on the fault lines of old and new stories. For now, thanks for reading, and please remember this is a collaborative effort, so do send in your comments! Next week will be a regular update. Until then, take care!