How far we can go when we are not allowed?
Are we inescapably becoming social and political activists if we are professionals working with the arts in a social context?
What happens to activists from a counterculture position if they joined the institution? Can they still work for the society or would they be absorbed and neutralized by the system?
Through few examples and case studies from different parts of the world, I tried to seek inspiration and answer these questions.
Egypt: Some lessons about breaking the rules and resilience
I carried this wooden chair on my forearm, and hold my mobile phone talking while heading to the location that my team and I scouted and decided that it will be the place where the performance scheduled in half an hour from now, will take place.
At the office, I left the choreographer and her team of dancers finalizing the last details before they hit the streets with the contemporary dance performance commissioned by Mahatat for contemporary art, my organization.
My interlocutor on the phone is a small ranked police officer at the police station of the neighborhood where we will hold our artistic intervention in the streets. I was in a long debate about why should we perform at this spot? We might have to change the location or cancel the show.
While I was crossing the heavy traffic of Manial streets heading the Nile sidewalk where we will perform and where the rest of my team was preparing the ground and the sound engineer was setting his equipment to start the show on time as planned and announced, I was trying to convince the officer that this was the best location to perform, that we are not heavily settled, that we will leave in one hour and that we will not disturb the high ranked minister who lives by the corner nor his security men who might simply stop our show and arrested with no discussion.
Having access to this officer was not an easy task. We were trying to find the right authority to address to issue permissions to perform in Cairo. Our tour of performances was taking place in three other cities than Cairo. Despite all the other governorates where the line was obvious: a file and letter of permission sent to the neighborhood authority, another to the local municipality, another to the police headquarter and finally one for the national security.
In Cairo it was impossible to hold the thread, no institution claims its responsibility and we cannot follow any track. In the end, we decided to hold the event after all and to try to avoid the risk by reaching out informally through our bouncers’ connections, to this small ranked officer who I was negotiating with.
What made me so sure and certain that our show will take place as we planned and where we planned it? What made me take this risk while nothing was sure that I could make it after all? There had a deep belief and confidence that I can go through and make it happen
I am not sure about the source of this confidence. I only know that I can still keep pushing a little bit further and wait for the weak spot in the massive wall of the system to break down. How far and how long I can still push this is the real question. This is my personal definition of “ resilience” There is a moment in our modern history in Egypt, where we witnessed the collapse of the system during the uprising of 2011. In one second, everything we have been raised to believe that it can be shaken was shacked, cracked and demolished, and all the rules have been broken. Suddenly the walls have fallen and the big vast field of possibilities appeared. The shake was brief and in a very short time, the system heeled and reconstructed itself. However, this moment of chaos and pure freedom left its deep impact on our collective memory and experience. I knew I can pass through, I knew I can make it, and I was ready to take the risk.
UK: The system always wins!
For the young generation of activists back to the 70s and 80s, in the UK, changing their position from working against and out of the system to become institutionalized was their way to bring their set of values into the system to make the difference that they wanted, explained Andrew Ormstron.
They thought by then, that after working in a very difficult counter-culture environment they gained the skills and the knowledge to join the other side. From an activist to a policy councils advisor, Andrew’ work has been passing through many cycles to be integrated into the system and be able to be the influencer and catalyst for the “difference” that he wanted to make. “As an individual, you can not make a change, it is an illusion. The only thing you can make is a difference.”
Andrew is now the leader of Wylie Projects providing policies, evaluation and business advice for the cultural and creative industries. He started his career as a housing activist at the housing cooperation and squatting. As many of his generation, and may be part of being older and a couple of other familial factors, he decided to join the city councils leading cultural services and festivals in Birmingham and London.
If the one loved his work, he has to learn how to protect it. This what Andrew learned through the years, how to cement his work to sustain it looking for over ten years ahead. He had to learn how to change the discourse to deal with the politicians, with the city, and with the communities, and to design his programs in a way that include all voices and communities in the process. To invest in time and resources or set an environment where people could meet to share the vision and to talk about the work.
Dealing with the office policies of each work environment, with his ambition and personal drives, and above all with the different political administrations that have alternated on his services, were real challenges that he needed to face during his career. Navigating through a labor administration, then after the elections, with the conservation administration overnight –and still do manage to serve the sector that he has been working for showing its value for both parties: the right and the left wings.
Building up strategies to create a strong link between the local communities and the culture sector and convincing the politicians to still support the culture, decentralizing and democratizing the art, and finally developing community leadership in the artistic practice.
Going through all these jobs, and positions, Ormston cannot be related strictly to his debut as an activist. From a housing militant to a bourgeois who owns his own house and worked for a long time in the system, he recognized that it is difficult to get related to the same cause the same way.
The old cause got activated when he and his generation discovered and started to question their endeavors over the years weren’t strong enough to prevent the Brexit results that created a big shock for them. Did they become that much integrated into the system that their work lost its cutting edge aspect to make a real impact?
“ I think the important thing as an individual is to remain engaged with working for a better society. So while this may, in my case, look quite different aged 61 as opposed to aged 21, I still think my campaigning for the SNP and independence in Scotland, or Board membership of SURF (, are meaningful actions.”
According to Andrew, the art and culture will pass through now the phase from a politically neutralized and vacuumed environment to a very politically charged.
From his side, Nicolai Khalzin, the director of Belarus Free Theater, an underground theater company registered in the UK as a charity. He escaped a very bad political environment to be settled in the UK hoping to be able to present freely his art.
He used to work under the dictatorship regime for years in his country facing risks of jail and persecution. For instance, in 2007 his actors, and even more than 60 spectators were subject to arresting and jail. However, he was still able to make things happen. He was able to produce his shows and perform despite the dictatorship. There is something liberating in the unpaved chaotic road of activists. Everything can happen and everything cannot.
Surprisingly in a context where there were no resources, no structure and no freedom to make things happen, making his art was still possible. In Belarus, he could perform in garages, in small underground festivals. He could have played with zero cost or a very low cost.
While in the UK, although the democracy and freedom of speech are relatively guaranteed, the independent theater companies like Belarus risks bankrupt and shutting down.
The financial constraints to sustaining an organization structure and running cost in a democratic country with a very strict and standardized system might lead small theatrical companies to close down. They cannot be subject of direct censorship but simply don’t get the support and the attention from funders to enable them to survive and to send out their message that might be in conflicts with nuclear forces or capitalist greed, so they die slowly.
In these difficult circumstances how far we can go? According to Khalzin, in terms of his future of practices, it will depend on the possibility to mobilize financial resources to sustain the company, however, he believes that surviving strict system or a dictatorship depends only on the inner strength of the individual to adapt and to develop. How far he can take the pressure, how many skills that he can use to rebuild himself and continue. The process seems integrated and embedded in Khalzin inner self if he collapsed he will rise, if he lost his theater, he will use his multiple skills as a director, artist to survive. Once you survive a dictatorship and risking constantly your life, you can beat any challenges.
It seems to me that only people who lived different realities can survive the difficult environment. The process to go through the unbearable, give the individual an inner strength to reconstruct his life under any circumstances and continues his fights and go fur with his activism.
Damascus| Beirut| Paris and Beyond: When the boundaries fall!
Definitely, no challenges have managed to stop the furious and brave managers of Ettijahat-Independent Culture, a Syrian cultural organization founded by the end of 2011 from carrying their work and research during the past six years. The organization seeks from its establishment to activate and render the role of independent culture and arts despite the turmoil events in Syria, the immigration of half of the founders to Beirut, the asylum of the other half in Europe, the lack of security and legal status, the uncertainty and fears.
Risking their lives, and security and living under difficult, almost unbearable conditions back in the time, didn’t prevent the five founders to grow their company and deliver their researches.
Breaking all the known system structures rules, facing the start of a revolution and a revolution, Rana Yazaji the co-founder flee to Beirut and Ayham Abu Shaqra, the only project coordinator, and researcher had to stay in Damascus to carry on their first project.
He was one of those social and cultural activists who refused to leave the country although he was hiding and living under the radar.
Starting only with two full-time members: the manager and the coordinator, they managed to carry on their first research project, with one grant, while they didn’t even have an office. Based on personal relationships and support, they managed to transfer files literally in their friends’ bags.
Even when Ayham had to flee the country as well to Paris where he asked for asylum, where he has to learn a new language and establish a new life, they still managed to keep their daily Skypes, and being informed about the workflow through the documents, strategic plans and budgets shared on the dropbox, and Google drives. This was also sometimes not possible back in Syria because the lack of infrastructures such as the electricity and the connectivity in the country weren’t reliable.
The work system depends essentially on members’ self –discipline, independence, and accountability. It also gets supported by the credibility, love and personal relationships.
Through the connections of the new manager and co-founder Abdullah AlKafri, in 2014, the company got hosted in the Sunflower Theater premises in Beirut where they could not as Syrian refugees establish their office due to the financial sanctions on Syrians.
The small and scattered organization kept growing despite all the challenges with the same remote and flexible system where everything is decentralized and collectively decided via the Internet, over three countries.
From one program, they developed several programs supporting the culture policies research in the Arab world, artists and Syrian artists in the diaspora with a grant program. The 2X2m square office had expended and launched in 2015 with a bigger events space in Beirut. Independently and collectively, the members knew to use their dispersion into the favor of the organization growth, they knew how to access many artists and talents in exile in the European area. Still facing the instability of grants and donors agenda that changes and alternates rapidly, they try to keep their focus on their areas of work and not to divert based on the funds’ objectives trends.
They proved that only the belief in the cause and the human capital are the essential elements to take carry on the work. Sometimes we have to face a war and dispersion to be able to work out of the system, there on the margins to make a difference in the society, and in life.
Sometimes we need to deconstruct it all and reconstruct it out of the norms and the limited beliefs. Sometimes we need to believe that the rules are not unbreakable and their destruction is a source of inspiration and possibility: possibility in a better life, in a better existence and in a better humanity. And this is the role of leaders.
This paper was written as a part of the author’s Fellowship with the Clore Leadership Programme in 2016-17.
The Clore Leadership Programme is a not-for-profit initiative, aimed at developing and strengthening leadership potential across the cultural and creative sectors in the UK. The Programme awards its flagship Clore Fellowships on an annual basis to exceptional individuals drawn from across the UK and beyond, and runs a choice of programmes tailored to leadership needs of arts professionals at different stages of their career. This provocation paper has been produced under the aegis of Clore Leadership Programme. For more information, visit www.cloreleadership.org.