Cultural Futures recap

Cultural Futures: Place ground and practice in Asia-Pacific New Media Arts. Hoani Waititi, Auckland, December 1-5 2005.

This piece (1000-word limit, so a little sketchy) appears in Visit magazine, published by the Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, NZ. For more information on Cultural futures, visit the symposium website.

“Sarai” in a number of Indian languages means “a place for travellers to rest”, or “meeting place”. It was fitting that The Sarai New Media Lab in Delhi and the co-initiators, Raqs Media Collective, were the first artists approached to participate in Cultural Futures, a marae-based event designed to foster international dialogue on the role of place and location in the new media arts environment. The Sarai Lab is also one of the few places I’ve been where the spirit of inquiry is underpinned both philosophically and practically by a spirit of manaakitanga or hospitality I have experienced here. Recognising this would have been impossible without the opportunities for connection and collaboration that new media provides. Even though technology is often associated with globalisation and homogeneity – this encounter seemed to only show more clearly how unusual our various homes were, even when we collaborated in “neutral” spaces like art galleries and the Internet. A simple way to test whether this recognition meant anything would be to bring Sarai to the marae.

The critical literature of postmodernity has emphasised the importance of context over the autonomy of singular works or authors/artists: the way material is presented to us, the environment we are in and the cultural norms at work makes a significant difference to both our experience and behaviour. But this knowledge hasn’t always allowed us to renovate the way we organise our day-to-day work in the cultural sector: our meetings, presentations, and conferences are in marked contrast to the affective richness of the material we’re organising. Too often, the physical environment and formats for interaction are defaults – we sit in lecture theatres and meeting rooms because that’s the way we’ve always done it, the way everyone does it.

In contrast to these “default zones” the marae – accompanied by the relevant tikanga – is a sophisticated physical, intellectual, and spiritual infrastructure for conversation. This holistic environment that self-consciously supports large group interaction in ways that professional facilitators like myself could only dream of creating in another context. Conversations are more intimate and less defensive when you’ve just spent the night sleeping in the same room; when you’ve been formally introduced; when you are in the embrace of an ancestor; when you know who is responsible for maintaining the environment you’re in.

An informal series of talks by Charles Koroneho, Albert Refiti and Kiritapu Allan on the first night of Cultural Futures highlighted the importance of the wharenui as a structure that integrates cosmological, sociological, economic, and technological narratives of its particular location. The wharenui is a house of knowledge: an information environment. After the lights were dimmed in the evening, about a dozen faces remained visible in the luminous glow from their laptops. The wireless signals transferring data from Hoani Waititi across the world became part of the informational breath of the house: in, out. People emailing photos home to the Philippines or Australia, to more mundane informational tasks like moderating email discussions in Delhi or sending a budget back to California. A traceroute on the packets of information as they flowed in and out would be a whakapapa of the manuhiri, grounding the connections between the visitors and their homelands. Far from being placeless, the conscious experience of being in a specific environment becomes a part of the experience of communications technologies – as it always has for diaspora who send resources and experiences back to distant homelands.

The presentations and discussions of the artists at Cultural Futures showed that they are, like all of us in the Asia Pacific, negotiating the complex flows of culture in the wake of colonisation and migration. In New Zealand we’ve become used to thinking about cultural politics in the national discourses of biculturalism or multiculturalism – but through international conversation and artistic practices we find out that being a “New Zealander” an “Australian” or an “Indian” matters little, except for where our passports can take us. Instead, in Aotearoa we can trace the routes of a Pacific culture that allows the Philippines to seem closer than Australia. Or triangulating experiences in Canada and India makes clear that the British Empire has left us all a shared experience of colonisation that cannot be lost or compartmentalised into our national identity.

No connection is one way street – the post-symposium workshops began planning a number of residencies and activities to foster further regional cooperation. New Zealand, with its diverse collection of Pacific, Asian and European cultures, is a good place to think about Asia Pacific networks. Sometimes, it felt that it was the foreign visitors who recognised this most clearly- as indicated by the high proportion of overseas visitors among the participants. To take advantage of our location requires a shift in our imagination from the more well-worn (and well-funded) Europe-U.S. relations. We can be a small, inconveniently-located settler society from an Empire in decline, fearful for the future, echoing Don Brash in a wish for the OECD-leading economic dominance of the 1950s. Or we can see ourselves as both central to a developing international interest in indigenous and postcolonial issues, and proximate to Asian economies that are exponentially increasing in power. It is a choice between who we have been and who we can become, or as Teresia Teaiwa frames it – between a static “Pacific identity” and a transformative “Pacific identification”. The global movement of people and cultural practices can never result in homogeneity: we can meet and learn from each other best when we know where we’re from but are unafraid to become something else. Looking around the whare after finishing her presentation, Lisa Reihana quipped that “the cultural future is good looking people from overseas” – a nice reminder of the romance that has always been present in the cross-cultural encounter.