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Soft Bodies, Soft Power

Much of our blogging to date has focused on the ‘up close’ material of the project, in ethnographic or phenomenological terms, examining specificities of language as it is spoken in rehearsal room, or as it might get to grips with the immediate realities of activities there. One of the project’s propositions however, is that intercultural work doesn’t simply arrive, occur and rest in studios and on stages, but that it passes in and out of them in flows of varying complexity in which the influence for impact of the work itself on others may occur at several removes of time and space from these originals. There are ways in which each or all of the ArtsCross participants can be said to represent the interests of their culture, nation, institution or constituency (e.g. ‘dancers’ or ‘academics’). We can all probably be said, in some degree, to be trying not only represent those interests to others, but also to enact them in ways that make them meaningful for others — explaining, moving, exchanging and so on. Whether or not any of us are actively choosing such a role however, I would also suggest that we are all being moved by currents of a so-called ‘soft power’, that moves between individual bodies and larger political ones and also carries and continues the effects of their gestures beyond their immediate reach. Again, it’s a proposition of the project that there is more than metaphor at stake in such suggestions, and that events in The Place’s rehearsal studios and theatre bear witness to, and are caught up within this extended movement of power.

Earlier this year, the British Council and the policy think tank Demos published ‘Influence and Attraction’, a report on culture and ‘soft power’ (1). This document is worth bearing in mind in relation to the ArtsCross project, and not only because of the cultural relations effected by bringing together such a range of actors from different cities and backgrounds. The report tries to trace some of the ways in which cultural activities bear upon the societies that participate them, and outlines eight ‘forces’ that shape cultural relations. It’s ironic of course, that at a time when the arts are consistently undermined domestically in politics and the media as fripperies, internationally, Britain is trying to take ever more advantage of the presumed strengths of its ‘cultural industries’ and of their value as drivers of the ‘creative economy’. In the report’s foreword, the Foreign Secretary William Hague suggests that ‘There is nothing to be feared, and much to be gained from the growing diversity in international centres of culture around the world. This opens up new opportunities for Britain and the British people…We in government are determined to play our full part in helping to liberate that ingenuity and talent across our national life, and to champion it all over the world’. Whilst there’s undoubtedly something platitudinous in such statements (incisive forewords are surely something of a rare breed), what rescues Hague’s comments, and the report they validate from being entirely so, is the extent to which soft power acts upon a politican like Hague, at least as much as it is enacted by him. It is this that maybe lies at the heart of the paradox of the profile the UK’s arts policy mentioned above. Although the arts budget represents only 0.1% of government spending, it suits the domestic agenda to get tough with frivolities like ballet or fringe theatre, despite their providing a return on that investment to the tune of 0.4% of GDP. However, as Britain’s ability to project power by military or industrial means overseas declines, Billy Elliot and Warhorse are recast as not only lucrative exports, but gestures with which to palpate the sensibilities of overseas others and attune them to the social, cultural and political body of Britannia that reaches out through them.

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 The eight forces that shape cultural relations identified in the Soft Power report are as follows:

  • foreign policy interests
  • the desire to create a positive image
  • national history and legacy
  • ideology
  • resources
  • language
  • cultural assets
  • commerce

I have no immediate interest in tracing the ways in which these differing forces flow through the ArtsCross project at this point, other than to note the extent to which they all draw the application of that power, whether in terms of its use or its impact, away from the actuality of experience of cultural practice. The power in creative or cultural experiences by this reckoning is always on its way somewhere else. Acting, dancing, painting, imagining, have no agency or in and of themselves beyond the extent to which they act as a vehicle for ideology, capital, policy etc. This has of course been a central problem with the notion of cultural industries to which the soft power agenda is allied. As an invention of the early years of the Blair government in the UK, the rather instrumental approach to culture led to an increase in funding in that period, but also to a mania (in the UK at least) for a) systems of measurement, and b) validating those systems in terms of income or capacity. In other words, the greater the volume of money or participants accruing to a cultural event, the greater its worth was presumed to be. Having spent the last 10 days in particular, and the last three years more generally looking closely at a set of practices actively seeking to work between different cultures, this lack of attention to manifestations of ‘soft power’ in experience seems odd to me. It seems to both disenfranchise participants in their experience as cultural actors, but also to neglect the extent to which they channel power into and out of it, often doing so indirectly. Functional efforts to trace cause and effect are likely to face defeat, given the complex overlapping of quotidian and aesthetic experiences involved.

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This nexus of the aesthetic and the quotidian, personal and social experience, policy and practice, is what makes ArtsCross speak to the debate around soft power, cultural diplomacy, and the creative industries I think. For sure, we can think of it as a case study example of intercultural relations. At institutional and personal levels, all involved are making an effort to broker broader understandings of other cultural practices, language, and experience. The specificities of this interest me very much, but I’m also increasingly concerned with the idea that some aspects of them might jump the circuit of the project itself, and inveigle themselves into social and professional life elsewhere. After three iterations of the project (Taipei, Beijing, and now London) I find that I’m at home in it to some extent. Do the resonances of such experiences sustain across time and space away from our work together, and shimmer into the fabric of others, elsewhere?

Riccardo Buscarini has managed to effect a very beautiful, tender way of moving, lifting, and touching together amongst his dancers. It seems unusual to me to see five men touch and manipulate one another in a way that does not seem to suggest either erotic tension or control. What is there, instead, is tenderness and care, and in consequence of them, a sense of being in common. I can’t really say ‘where’ or in ‘what’ this sense is coded, because it’s a matter of apprehension rather than of decoding signs and signals. It is at the dancers’ fingertips, and between them, and our sensibilities as we sit, watching carefully. Theories of interculturalism, like much political thought, have tended to fixate upon the possibilities of knowledge between the notional positions of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. What performance, and perhaps dance especially reveals, is that these categories — perhaps because they are reduced to, and separated as loci — are hard, if not impossible to identify in acts of moving and creating together. One perhaps finds this even more in the rehearsal room than on stage, where a ready separation of performer and spectator is always and already present. I watch Wei Wei and Petros working together in Riccardo’s rehearsal. Their bodies are very different, by which I’m not referring to their ethnicity, but their physicality. Between them, between Wei Wei’s slim swiftness, and Petros’ grounded strength, is a softness, a quality of working and moving together which is more than the sum of its parts.

This softness between them is a power, it arises out of what each of them does, but requires the other to actively engage it, take it on, and develop it. We need to understand power as movement — transformation, transition — rather than only in what it effects, and by what instruments. Speaking of power in music for a 2006 Reith Lecture for the BBC, the conductor Daniel Barenboim argued that ‘power does not have to work through control, but through the accumulative strength that comes from the build up of tension’ between its constituent elements. Furthermore, he suggested ‘even the most powerful chord has to allow [its] inner voices to be heard’. The sublimation of any one element, is no chord at all, but the assertion of dominance, over the other elements, and over the listener. By tension, I think that Barenboim is referring to a form of dynamic relationship, rather than to conflict. The softness between Petros and Wei Wei requires tension, both because they physically clear a space for that quality to occur — holding off other impulses and possibilities — and because it requires an ongoing set of shifts — as Petros’ body lowers, Wei Wei’s has to follow. The tension at stake here is not one created by difference between presumed opposites — the UK and China for example — but by the need to accommodate (i.e. make a home for) divergence, for the movements of currents away from sources real or imagined. Francois Jullien proposes that we shift our attention in thinking interculturally from concerns for difference to divergence: ‘instead of baldly assuming some unity or specificity of principle, on each side, one which we might know beforehand (although where did this projection come from?) divergence sets what it has separated in tension and discovers one through the other‘ (2).

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Whilst I don’t doubt that the arts can act as instruments or agents of the forces outlined in the British Council’s report, what it seems to miss, or underestimate to me, is the extent to which artistic practices can themselves be a manifestation of soft power, rather than just the means by which it is effected. Certainly the way in which Petros and Wei Wei cooperate and interact can be understood as a metaphor for mutual understanding and respect for common interest, but it is not only the capacity of the arts to represent interest of foreign policy, history, ideology and so on that are at stake. Petros and Wei Wei do not so much invite comparison — a ‘Chinese’ moving body in contrast to a ‘British’ one — but, in moving together, and thus away from those presumed singularities, our attention diverges from them towards a new current or sensibility we could not otherwise have grasped. Jullien characterises this in terms of a ‘richness’ and ‘fertility’ which may come about in consequence of seeing ‘the diversity of cultures or thought as so many available resources, of which any intelligence can make good use in order to enlarge and reacquaint itself, and from which benefit may be gained, which means that they would not be lost, which is the risk run by contemporary uniformity as a result of globalization’ (3). Instead of conceiving the arts as a means of exerting influence by one nation/culture/city/etc. over another, what if they were instead thought of as a common ground for determining mutual interest? If Petros and Wei Wei can so readily find a way to be ‘soft’ together, and without compromising their own integral sense of self-worth, mightn’t that offer a means by which ‘softness’ might enter into the available discourse and practice of cultural relations more widely? By what means can it jump the circuit of their performing together, and into everyday life, elsewhere? It can, I propose, if we think of this softness as an ambiance — something in the air as well as in the body. Ambiances are pervasive, movements that transform as they come into contact with other movements, the aesthetic becoming the quotidian and vice versa. Being pervasive, they also have the capacity to be political as they form the ground for experiences in common.

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(1) Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century; London: British Council, 2013

(2) Jullien, Francois The Silent Transformations (trans. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski); London: Seagull, 2011, p.27

(3) Ibid. p.28

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