Tubes from the ground, now getting a sonorous aftelife

Construction site interacts musically with neighbors

Tubes from the ground, now getting a sonorous aftelife

Tubes from the underground. Now getting a sonorous afterlife in a streetstrument/ giving-back-the-noise workshop

Concept: During a street art decoration of the wall around the local metro construction site, akutsk is making a ‘streetstrument’ workshop.

The workshop is going to be in two parts:

  1. a streetstrument building workshop. In these weeks, I’m collecting debris from the construction. At the event August 11, these objects will be the material for instruments.
  2. a Anthropomorfer workshop, where the participants form the sounds and improvise collectively via laptop and smartphones

Everything is on location, anyone can join, and afterwards we paste up QR-codes linking to recordings of the impros.
Here is the Facebook event.

The street sound activist’s toolkit

The fundamental reason why I work with these “street interventions”, using the Anthropomorpher as a tool for inviting passers by in the street to make collective improvisations on the street’s sounds, is because I want to ignite a trend where people start making sound art as street art. There is no official name for this, – I have suggested ‘fonografiti’ (intended misspelling), ‘proto urban folklore’, or ‘soundtagging’. I have only seen few examples of sound art as street art (see my page with examples), and I have seen no examples of collective street improvisations using electroacoustic tools, – a part from my own project, that is. As always, I invite the reader to give feedback: if you have examples of sound art as street art, and collective electroacoustic improvisation in the street, please give me a comment!

But why electroacoustic collective street improvisations, you might ask? Why is this approach important, necessary, indispensable?

Why street? Public space is the only place where there is a possibility for random meetings between people, across differences in gender, age, occupation, income etc. People are different, and when they engage in problem-solving activities in contexts with only people of a similar kind, the way the problems are solved will tend to exclude the viewpoints of other kinds of people. Therefore, the street is a potential motor for balancing contrasting interests. Public space is invaded by commercial and municipal interests to an extend where we ‘ordinary people’ tend to forget that the street is a common space for all of us. The visual ‘screen’ of the street is already full, so to say, BUT there is a whole new ground for expression left untouched: sound!

In the unfair battle between commercial- municipal interests and the citizens, there is space left open, allowing ordinary people to express themselves through sound, while adding a virtual track to the all encompassing visual track of public space.

Why collective improvisations? In posing the problem: how does this street sound, and what can we express through the sounds of this street, on this time and place, the concept I’m developing is setting up an example showing that collective problem solving involving different kinds of people is indeed possible. Improvisation is a very important aspect of inclusive problem solving activities, where a predefined agenda will always favour the interests of some to the expend of others. An improvisation in the akutsk sense is a reflexive collective activity, involving a process where the participants agree on a common ad hoc script for the collective improvisation, thus giving the example of a collaboration around a problem solving activity, with sound as a medium.

In general, people regard public space as a distance they have to cross in order to get to the places that are important to them, all of which contain people that are in general of the same kind. A street sound improvisation can work as a interest-free brake for this stream of people hurrying from A to B. A collective street sound improvisation is not aimed at serving specific interests, the participants being the ones defining the aim and content of the activity within the given framework. It is an attempt at setting up an ideal form of interchange between contrasting interests, an experience that can be scaled to a broader, societal perspective.

Why electroacoustic? I talked to a guy who has a lot of experience in performances, street theatre and the like, and he was sceptic about the level of technology required for the Akutsk concept of collective street sound improvisations. There are many examples of people making musical activities in the street, ranging from street musicians, over flash mobs to stomp inspired activities. Common to these activities is that they do not challenge the traditional duality between performer and audience, not succeeding in inviting the latter to reflexive (co-)creativity.

Although the relatively high level of technology required for the akutsk approach is a challenge for the possible spreading of the concept, it is an obstacle worth the while considering the benefits it entails. Reflection and informed decision making is central to the concept, and the way I use the computer eases the path to this considerably. With the possibility for the participants to record a sound, listen to it, form it with their voice, and subsequently listen to it together with the other participants, the Anthropomorpher bridges the gap for most people not trained as musicians, that inhibits them from expressing themselves in a creative and reflected way through sound. In addition, smartphones connected with the computer through (portable) wifi, serving as individual remote controls for each participant’s sound, facilitates the use of space as a ‘resistance’. The participants move in a traced field on the ground representing the sound’s virtual space as gestalted by changes in volume and panning by each of the participants.

This could be done acoustically, – people using their voices or improvised instruments, but this is probably to far from most peoples zone of comfort. Using a smartphone as a remote is comfortable. Using your voice in a mic, and walking around in a field in the street with strangers are sufficient barriers to overcome, and although they exclude some people, I think that they exclude people in less predictable ways than the traditional acoustic variant of street performances favouring people who consider themselves ‘musical’ or ‘extrovert’.

With my aspirations for a proliferation of this approach – or similar approaches – it is essential that the procedures are simple,and easy to copy. For the time being, I think that the complexity of the electroacoustic method and the technical requirements are posing a serious barrier.

In a global context, you can argue that the approach is excluded for most of the communities in the Global South. You might say though that we northerners are more challenged when it comes to spontaneous expression in a public setting, and that we need technical aid to overcome this. For the sake of people interested in engaging in activities inspired by the akutsk approach, I have made this list of tools needed for the aspiring street sound art activist:
Though summing up to I don’t know how many years of wage for an average garment worker in Bangladesh, I believe that it is not inconceivable that a local group of activits in a Northern welfare state could get their hands on these things.

Quotations: Lefebvre on the living disorder of the street.

Spelling out the invisible social wall

Owing to the curious lay-out of the town it is quite possible for someone to live for years in Manchester and to travel daily to and from his work without ever seeing a working-class quarter or coming into contact with an artisan. He who visits Manchester simply on business or for pleasure need never see the slums, mainly because the working-class districts and the middle-class districts are quite distinct … To such an extent has the convenience of the rich been considered in the planning of Manchester that these plutocrats can travel from their houses to their places of business in the centre of the town by the shortest routes, which run entirely through working-class districts, without even realizing how close they are to the misery and filth which lie on both sides of the road.

Friedrich Engels

Stockholm is an extremely beautiful city. The buildings are well kept, beautiful, old. Everything is clean and in good order. Streets are clean. And the water! There is water everywhere, and contrary to Copenhagen, the old city is including the sea to an extent to which you find yourself always looking across water, when looking at the beautiful architecture.

Stockholm – a beautiful city with an amazing mix of see and city, Capital of Scandinavia, or just another urban area in the Global North with strong but invisible social walls

In central Stockholm you get the idea that people in Sweden all just happen to own (at least) a yacht.

By the end of my 6 days stay in Stockholm, I wanted to find a flee market, so I checked The Visual Guide to Stockholm. Thumbing through this book, my impression of Stockholm as a place for only very beautiful houses where only people with (at least) a yacht live were completely reaffirmed. It mentioned a flee market in a place called Skärholmen. Supposedly the only place in Stockholm, where people go when they want to go to a flee market.

I asked a woman in the street if she knew about this flee market. She actually grew up in that place, she told me, but hadn’t been to the place in 10 years. I clumsily tried to get out of her what kind of neighbourhood it was, asking if it was a residential area, urban, or where only old people lived. She didn’t really get my point, but stated that it was a ‘mixed’ area. So I went there.

The trip in the subway launched a totally new experience with the city. First: the sounds. From a soundscape with birds, boats, ferrys, waves etc. I entered this gloomy ugly soundscape of the subterranean. There are excuses for the sounds that the trains, lifts, escalators etc make (although we know that where there is a prestigious market for things, – a lot of money is spend in designing the incidental sounds that our products make). These sounds can be ugly and you can accept it because you know that when the train stops it needs to use breaks. And the train is heavy, so of cause it makes a loud annoying sound. But the intentional sounds !!!!  – the sounds that are created in order to signal things to the users, like ‘the doors are closing’, and the way the pre-recorded voices announcing the name of the next station. These sounds do not necessarily need to be ugly, impersonal, depressing. Then there is the visual side.  There are many shades of yellow. But why use THIS yellow for the places you must put your hands in the train!

Arriving at the station where the flee market is, the sound of corvids met me, and the sight of people that probably do not own a yacht (or anything else).

Fleemarket in suburbian Stockholm

If this was a movie people would think, you don’t have to overdo things that much! The flee market was in the basement of a mart-like construction by the underground station. Large tubes running in the low ceiling and non-yacht-owners sitting each at his/her stand, immobile, looking out in the air. It took me some time and the purchase of an old hunting horn for my son, to get used to the quite heavy atmosphere of the place. There were light moments of people small talking and laughing, but it seemed that most of the people didn’t consider the flee market spirit interesting as such, and were more in it for the money so to say. The woman I had asked in central Stockholm about the flee market hadn’t been back to her place of birth in ten years, – a connexion?

My experiences in Stockholm, although in general on the positive side (which probably had to do with the purpose of my visit, – I was there for a workshop, and not for collecting bottles), inspired to reflection on the relation between how many yachts you own, and how much right you have for beautiful sound and sights.This is of course quite banal, but Stockholm does a pretty good job spelling it out. As if it was meant to be so, I stumbled upon this book at the Moderna Museet, from which I have the initial quotation:

this is my diy copy of the image of the front page

As it shows, this book is extremely inspiring. I have always avoided these kinds of texts because I thought that these questions were for architects and designers and not for sound artists. How wrong I was!! Questions about the urban space are extremely important for all of us!! Not least when it comes to sound. First of all there is the question about the soundscape itself. It certainly makes sense to question the way sound meets us in our public space. And then there is the general fact that public space is the only place of encounters of people of all kinds, and therefore a potential place of interchange between different ways of living and seeing life.

The space-time vector converges to zero in urban space; every point can become a focal point that attracts all, a priviliged place upon which everything converges.

Henri Lefebvre according to Christian Schmid

Quotations: Lefebvre on the living disorder of the street.

street improvisation; field for collective improvisation

Collective street improvisations, – how do we get people involved?

How can you start a new trend, create changes in other people’s lives, making them start doing things no-one has done before? How can you make more people start doing what only few people did before?

The basic goal of all my activities in the ongoing process I call Akutsk, is to inspire people who are not professional musicians or composers to work with sound as a means of expression in a creative, reflected and situated way.

I’m pursuing a bottom up approach, where I use the street as a place where people are presented with the methods/technologies for collective street improvisations, through workshops and flash mob inspired interventions.

With the workshop concept,  I aim at making a number of 3 hours workshops in local communities, starting by the ones close to where I live. The main target group consists of young people aged 13 – 16, a central criteria of success being to engage young people from not-so-well-off neighbourhoods.

How can I engage young people in taking part in collective street improvisations? I have three strategies:

  1. Go through the adults they trust. Pedagogues in the youth club, teachers, neighbourhood workers, etc. The challenge is to actually get in touch with these people, they seem to be always busy
  2. Participants from one workshop are invited to participate in the next one. This helps overcome the shyness, and it can also create new connections between young people from different neighbourhoods. And it empowers the ones who participate the second time, giving them a role as peer trainers.
  3. Have a group of facilitators, young adults by preference, that help on the workshops, giving the example of the work flow of the method. It’s always easier to engage in something, when you can see how it works.

The largest barrier to inspire people to get involved in these activities lies of course in the answer to the question ‘what’s in it for me?’. Since there is no money involved, I have to come up with something else. For the participants in the workshop, the answer would be, that it provides them with new means of expression through sound. It gives them a framework, as a collective, in which they can create something unique out of the sounds that are there at a given time and place. And the ‘something’ they create leaves a mark on the place in the form of a QR code. The participants can tell others about this moment by referring to the QR code. In addition, the process itself is fun, it’s playful, physical, and the way we work with the material is flexible, personal and situated. At least this is what I believe!!

The main challenge is to make people pass the barrier of shyness, and of why-should-I-start-doing-this-stupid-thing-ness. We all experience these situations from time to time, where someone wants us to do something in front of others that seem awkward and unnatural in the moment. My solution is to

  1. have a set-up that is simple. What meets the participant is: a quadrangular field. Two microphones, one set of headphones. A smartphone in his/her hand.
  2. have a set of play rules that are simple. There might be a weak point to my concept here, though I think that newcomers can quite rapidly get the hang of it. It consists of 4 steps:
    1. find a sound, explore the area for interesting ‘streetstruments’
    2. record it (by tapping your smartphone)
    3. form your sound with your voice (after putting on the headphones and turning your smartphone upside down)
    4. move yourself and your phrase in the quadrangular collective improvisational field (by using your smartphone as a remote control turning up/down the volume and the panning of your phrase)
  3. Have a couple of people who already know the processes start up the activities, and gradually make new participants replace them.

street improvisation; field for collective improvisation

Two days ago, I got an answer from the local community centre in a neighbourhood called Valby, that they accepted my application for two workshops. The workshops are set to August 2012. I also have a pilot workshop in collaboration with the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, July 6. I still wait for the answer to 4 additional workshops, but in any case, I will be making improvised street ‘interventions’ whenever I have the time for it. In total this gives a fair number of occasions, where the magic can begin. And it gives a basis for a group of volunteers to work for the project.

This is the next step: Starting up a group of volunteers or ‘fonografists’. I think there are a number of reasons why someone would want to get involved in this project. First of all, it is something new. Working with sound in street art is very little developed, since it has been to complicated and expensive until now, and being part of a movement towards a new form of expression is simply extremely inspiring. Being a voluntary in this project also means experimenting with how to extend the ordinary way you use your voice and body into a form in which you can develop a sound improvisation in a collective. And it means guiding others in doing so. It means experiences in how to develop the tools and methods for involving non-musicians in working with sound as a means for expression. And then there are the additional experiences in documenting, communicating, organisational development, fundraising, etc. But most of all, there is the kick in making events at unexpected places, to create occasions where magic can enter in our everyday lives.

Quotations: Lefebvre on the living disorder of the street.

Anthropomorfer – a tool for intercontinental collective sound art improvisation?

We are all virtuosos with our voices. Imagine being able to improvise over the sounds around you using your voice as an infinitely fine-tuned  controller. While  real time jamming with someone on the other side of the planet.

The mission is: I want to find the optimal tool to allow people to improvise sound art in collectives across the planet, in a creative, pleasurable, and reflective way. I have developed the Anthropomorfer as a desktop application, allowing collectives to improvise, while being in the same place. Now, I want to extend the functionality from a local wifi based context to a global web-based one.

The tool is intended for anyone interested in working with sound as a means for expression, but these contexts are of special interest:

  • working with children developing their analogue literacy and their divergent thinking
  • in organisations enhancing communication skills

What will the participant experience:

1) Open your app. Start a group or sign up for one. Select a sound, either by recording it on the spot, or from a database of sounds that other users have chosen. 2) You now hear your audio while viewing it as a waveform on your smartphone. You choose which part of the sound you want. 3) When all the participants in your group has chosen and cut their sound, start your session 3… 2… 1…. and:  4) improvise together. You can turn volume up and down, pan, and you can shape your sound with your voice via the phone’s microphone. 5) afterwards, you listen to the improvisation, give it thumbs up or down, and if a majority votes for it, the improvisation is saved on the server. Here you can comment and discuss it.

What lies behind:

Technically, there must be a server where the program runs, and audio files are stored. From each cell phone the server receives  1) an upload of a short sound file (max. 15 seconds). Or a selected audio file, which is already on the server. 2) A flow of analysis of the voice. Not the voice. Just analysis of pitch and volume. The server streams audio from the collective improvisation to the participants.

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How do we store the analogue?

Why is it so important to store analogue knowledge? Because our collectives with their extended analogue illiteracy waste to much energy and develop too many negative behaviours, instead of inspiring people to solve common problems in sustainable ways. Developing sustainable forms of analogue interaction is crucial to our collectives, but without an efficient method of storing this knowledge, it is soon lost in our ephemeral societies.

If you are confused about my use of the terms analogue and digital, please read my blogpost Analogue and digital processes

In collectives sharing a strong folklore, dance, music and storytelling are efficient sites for developing, storing and retrieving analogue knowledge. The activities are inclusive, cross modal and open ended. Participants are guided by a common knowledge about steps, rhythms, scales, etc., and possible ways of combining them. Events develop according to a number of open factors, being sensitive to context and to the participant’s intentions. They are improvised, and may turn in several directions, like a dinner conversation.

A strong, inclusive and open ended culture for dance and music gives a collective the means for  developing a refined attunement to the physical and mental space of the other, giving the participants a common, codified language for analogue interaction.

In our welfare society, our capacities for dancing, music-making and storytelling have been colonised by market economy, setting up clear boundaries between producer and consumer.

A major obstacle for our communities to have an efficient replacement for our lost folklore is our fragmented way of life. What about the new technologies, can they be the glue that restores our lost proximity?

Since analogue processes are gradient and embedded in context, storing information about them is an enormous challenge. We might think that the new technologies for making traces of visual and auditive elements give us the sites necessary for storing and retrieving analogue information. To some extent, I believe they have the opposite effect. Since film, sound recording and photography are so seemingly close to our instantaneous perception, we are easily tricked into believing that what they depict is a somewhat true picture of the actual event. This is of course only a surface point of view since we all know that a movie actually just consist of many pictures/frames taking in a row, – remember the root of the word: moving pictures – and a sound recording is a “mechanical inscription of sound waves” as it says in Wikipedia. Whether done by what we call ‘digital’ or ‘analogue’ equipment, these inscriptions are basically digital, in the sense I use here, since they proceed from a linear approach, taking one frame or sample at a time, storing them in a long row, on a disc or a tape. The procedure shares its conceptual framework with writing, and you might say that we merely have rebuild the (phonetic) typewriter into an audio and an image typewriter. It is true that the bitrate of our devices makes these small images/sound samples appear so rapidly one after the other that our senses are completely tricked into perceiving movement. Nevertheless, the linear character of this method for storing analogue information makes it inefficient when it comes to building up a culturally sustainable collective:

  • A recording is myopic. It can only collect information that it is constructed for collecting, ignoring all the other types of analogue information we receive in an event. The hegemony of the video recording, as stated by the success of Youtube, boosts the existing  hierarchy of the senses, where the visual is by far the most foregrounded sense.
  • A recording is uni-directional. The different interactions in an event flow in multiple, and often contradictory directions, and since the one who produces the recording must make a choice about which stream(s) to follow, the consumer is left with limited if any possibilities to follow other streams of interaction. These underprivileged streams might be present as traces, but you cannot follow them further since they are cut away or continue outside the frame. New supposedly revolutionary technologies like 3D video and surround sound broaden the field of the linear recording, but they do not come with a solution to the basic problem about the decision of the viewpoint, which still lies in the hands of the producer of the recording.
  • A recording petrifies potentiality. In a given event, there is an infinite number of potential combinations of interaction between the participants, whether human or non-human, animate or inanimate. In order to interact adequately in a situation, you must be able to read the potential intentions, movements and reactions of the other participants.

Directors , photographers,  and composers are tweaking their respective media in order to challenge these build in limitations. Just like the writers tweak text in order to convey the totality of an event. Being a competent user of text requires years of study.

Related: http://immanentterrain.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/gilles-deleuze-on-framing-2/

For some reason we believe that visual literacy and auditory literacy is easier  to achieve. Although the technologies are available to everyone now, the users’ possibility for  impregnating the process of recording with significant analogue  information is limited. The abundance of apps, programs and gadgets that should help us do ‘as the professionals’ result in an enormous amount of works that appear ‘professional’. Nevertheless, since these tools are generally based on a surface understanding of the choices in artistic processes, they give you ready made options that will mimic (commercially) successful works, while impeding you from making choices according to an understanding of the context your process is embedded in, with all its potentiality, agency and … analogueness.

Our folklore-deprived collectives  need new sites for analogue storing. Although the new technologies for recording sound and image are now completely democratised, their capacity for giving the average user a site for storing and retrieving analogue information doesn’t compete with the capacities lying in a strong culture for dance, music and storytelling.

Our current level of analogue literacy leaving us with an almost autistic society, where we are challenged in reading the non-binary information in our interactions, a need for new methods is apparent. We allocate most of the time available in our childhoods to the development of (phonetic) literacy and numeracy, and it seems improbable that this is going to change in the near future.

Can we develop methods and tools that will shortcut the steepness of the learning curves for analogue literacy?

Music, dance and storytelling didn’t come out of thin air. They are rooted in our inherent competencies for prosody, gesture and speaking. Everyone is capable of expression through these modalities, and this is where the key to new sites for developing analogue knowledge lies.

These tools and methods for developing, storing and retrieving analogue knowledge must enable the extraction of information about the existing (rudimentary) analogue infrastructure of a collective, providing a site for the playing around with these elements, and
offering simple methods for reassembling them into enhanced and sustainable analogue infrastructures. The tools and methods must deliver intelligent, humanised interfaces, ready to read the analogue information in gesture, movement and speech, while being sensitive to context and the agency of the participants, not only human, but also non-human or inanimate. They must be open ended, open for the users to tweak and hack them, developing extensions or ‘plugins’, including new elements from the local context, and the surrounding processes in society, in popular and elite culture. And finally, they must include storing methods that facilitate the sharing, distribution and efficient  retrieving of analogue know-how in the collective over time, and between collectives working with similar processes.

Related reading:

“No ear, no piece of apparatus could grasp this whole”  (www.akutsk.tumblr.com)

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The magic of blogging

Yesterday, I posted my thoughts about Learning from folklore, and since I want to get in touch with people, around the globe, that are interested in the same things, I shared the link to the post on facebook to all sites and people that I have a connection to. For a lot of them it is no longer clear to me, who they are or where I know them from. Just the same. Today, there was a “like” for my facebook post in a forum called Sound Art, and I clicked on the person liking my post, and it got me to this interesting project, totally related to the reflections in my blog post:

Usina Colectiva

Programa radiofónico

USINA COLECTIVA…soñamos con puentes que nos integren y nos proyecten, porque el anhelo que nos une y motoriza no es más que la esperanza de que llegará el día que sumando pequeñas acciones y los grandes sueños, la voluntad y el compromiso en el gesto y en los actos, lograremos una nueva cultura que nos hermane en la diversidad de nuestras mentes y nuestros modos expresivos. Una nueva cultura que nos humanice, una nueva forma de hacer la vida y la política…

USINA COLECTIVA…existimos tenemos voz…Usina Colectiva es un programa de radio cuya gestión y programación se elabora en forma colectiva, escuchando con el corazón, escuchando de verdad al otro. Usina Colectiva no entiende de modelos, si entiende de procesos, por tal motivo te invita a que te integres desde un punto inicial participativo y creativo…

USINA COLECTIVA…programa radiofónico que transmite los sonidos de costumbres, quehaceres cotidianos, arte, comunicación y formación a través de la historia oral, relatos, entrevistas. Que la Usina Colectiva sea una memoria colectiva de los propios actores sociales, un generador de conocimiento y afecto.

Producción y conducción: Valeria Barbero y Rubén Marino Tolosa.”

Unfortunately, I cannot find any websites with content from this project collective factory-project. But still, finding this description by two persons completely unknown to me (and luckily, I understand Spanish) is telling me, that there is …  intelligent life out there, and that my strategy of writing in English, although I am anglophonically challenged, works. It works!

Capoeira

Learning from folklore / Reversed colonialism 2.0

It is characteristic for folklore activities that they include people non regarding age, gender, or body shape. I’m at my son’s capoeira graduation, batizado, and I see kids, 50 year old men, young people, tall or small, skinny or heavily build people, all engaged in the same activities, each with his/her own personal style. It’s playful, concentrated and including.  In comparison, elite or popular cultural activities favour certain characteristics in people. Becoming a  ballet dancer is excluded if you are not build in a certain way. Being a pop singer requires that you are born with a certain look ( singing talent is less important..)
Popular cultural activities are normally judged according to numbers. It is important to know how many people attended the concert, bought the CD, etc. Elite cultural activities are judged according to their apparent ability to give the audience a transcendent experience. In that sense, pop culture parallels the mechanics of market economy,  and elite or avant-garde culture lends from religion. In both cases there is a clear division of labour, each part of the process being taken care of by specialists ensuring that the consumer/art lover understands that this particular product/ art work is ‘the best you can get’ (for the price).
Capoeira

In this dualistic scenario, with its clear division between producer and consumer of cultural products, conditions are fragile for both parts. The pop-expert-salesman and the art-expert-priest are dependent upon having a large number of people supporting them, buying their products or accepting their high placement in the hierarchy; the current crisis in the cultural industries stemming from the recent technological  developments, and the crisis for elite cultural institutions fighting to  maintain public funding, exhibit the frailties on the expert-producer side. The tragic life and recent death of yet another pop icon/ victim, Whitney Houston,  underlines the costs for individuals fuelling the all-devouring industry of pop.

From the perspective of the consumer, there is a corresponding fragility in the sense that deposing the responsibility and the capacity for cultural expression and development in the hands of a centralised elite leaves us ordinary people with few possibilities of making useful translations of our cultural experiences into valuable, lasting and socially sustainable  changes in our lives. The pop culture scheme provides us with one-size-fits-all solutions developed through a social darwinistic race towards ever more unattainable ideals for how you should look, feel and perform. The elite art scheme leaves you puzzled and without a clue until the art-expert-priest gives you the explanation that there is no explanation other than that the art work transcends your everyday life experience and brings you to a higher level of consciousness. Which you accept because you know that you don’t possess the decoding capacities to have direct access to this level without a guide/priest.

Learning from folklore

In contrast with the dualistic producer-consumer scheme, with its roots in industrial society, folklore activities give the participants much broader and socially sustainable options. Folklore thrives in communities  where government is more or less absent, or if present then in an oppressing way. In welfare states, like Denmark, government is very  present and most of the problem solving activities are institutionalized. This is very effective and it allocates time and energy for the individual to pursue his or her goals, which – according to our protestant-industrial ethics – is to excel in an expert function solving problems for others, so that they can allocate time for their individual  goals and so on.

The question is not why our folklore has died out and what we can do to revitalise it. This approach would at its best convert historical documentation into curious art-pop products, competing with the huge amount of products that have already won the race. It’s much more interesting to ask what folklore is made of and what capacities lie in us for doing it. Folklore as process, not product.

Folklore activities are embedded in collectives, with a large degree of diversity of the participants in age and gender. The different forms of what we term as dance, music, narration etc., are intertwined, with unclear boundaries between modes of production and perception. Since no money is involved, questions about authorship are superfluous. New forms are being developed in collective creative processes embedded in everyday life situations.  Folklore enhances the feeling  of belonging, of ownership, and since expertise is rooted in the collective itself,  there is a short path for each participant to autonomous reflection upon ‘how we do things here’ and there is a short path for making changes according to developments in other processes, such as pop culture,  technological developments, political changes, climate changes etc.

Seeing folklore not as a set of cultural forms and products, but as processes  in which we all have the capacities of engaging, opens up for a reflection on how we can find inspiration in folklore to change the current paradigm, based as it is on the producer-consumer dualism of industrialism.

How do we translate the capacities that folklore activities make apparent,  into activities that can create substantial changes in our individualistic and alienating welfare society?

The most common strategy, which has been active since the 1970ies, is a sort of reversed colonialism, where enthusiasts immerse themselves into folklore activities in different parts of the (third) world. Back home they serve as hard-working entrepreneurs,  establishing a local milieu for that specific folklore activity.
As is the case for my son’s capoeira group, some of these milieus succeed in bringing parts of the characteristics of folklore into the participants’ lives. Still, the imported folklore traditions do not really threaten status quo, since the existing structures for leisure activities gladly suck them in adding to the variety of harmless spare time activities. Local policies welcome them as they fit in with strategies for inclusion and diversity.
If the new elements of ‘ethnic’ expressions succeed in reaching a larger audience, it is in the form of spectacular shows, focusing on the performative aspects of the given activities, thus draining them of their inclusive and empowering sides.  Another way is when  pop culture parasites the expressions, carefully leaving  out  their subversive or reflective components.

Reversed colonialism 2.0

The failure of this, let’s call it first wave reversed colonialism, in (re)implementing the capacities for local communities in the welfare state of  being self-supplying in reflective, inclusive and open ended cultural activities, lies in the way that the pioneers of the movement(s) proceeded. By imitating the cultural forms, and copying the whole paraphernalia of clothes, language, colours etc, these milieus exposes the new influences for either rejection or exoticism. Hybridization is not an answer to this problem since the blending of the two systems will stem from a surface understanding of the new system based on criteria from the old.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, a wave of new approaches to finding solutions to the challenges we face is rising. The central keyword is sustainability. Following the wave of ecological sustainability, (old-)new solutions to economic sustainability are now building up in the form of socioeconomic companies and collaborative consumption. With these version 2.0 of the ecological and economic movements of the 60ies and 70ies, it makes sense to look for a new development in social and cultural sustainability along the same lines.

A reversed colonialism 2.0 should focus, not on the surface aspects of folklore activities, but rather on the underlying processes of culturally and socially sustainable communities, where folklore thrives.

The What and How of cultural sustainability

The 2.0 of reversed colonialism has to do with a second level of reflection, that takes into account not the surface structures of third world folklore activities, but the generative capacities that we all have for cultural sustainability. The elements of folklore that are important for the what of this old-new project include:

  • The decentralisation of expertise. Knowledge about how to produce culture and how to reflect upon cultural production is monopolised in silos of experts in cultural production, diffusion and reflection. There is a need for empowerment on the local plane, enabling collectives to make qualified and reflected decisions about their cultural development.
Read Thomas Bretts post about the rise and fall of music-experts.
  • Inclusive and open ended processes. There is a need for challenging hierarchies of age, gender and minority/majority groups. We should learn from collectives where cultural processes are open for people across barriers and that are open to new influences from other processes, while including new elements through hybridisation.
  • Collaborative creative processes. The processes of cultural creation should be liberated from the grip of the assembly line model, and we must (re)learn to work in collectives, sensitive to local context, where the participants contribute according to their unique personal background and capacities.
  • Cross modality. In our current paradigm, there is a hierarchy of the modalities of expression/reception ranking the visual at the top, then the auditive, etc. We split activities that imply hearing, looking, moving, or tasting etc. up in different incompatible activities. Since our lives are embedded in a cascade of impressions, the myopic favouring of  one or two channels of perception impoverish our experiences, and the false splitting up of sensorial information in our cultural activities impedes a change in our culture of myopics. In culturally sustainable communities, any impulse can lead to activities in any combination of modalities, and an activity combining one set of modalities can be translated into a new set of modalities.
  • A broad concept of reflection. The logico-deductive way of thinking is child of the industrial paradigm, and binary thinking pervades our welfare societies within education, politics, production, and any area you can think of. A culturally sustainable approach flattens out the hierarchy of meaning making activities, and welcomes other kinds of reflection. Gesture, movement, sound, etc. are all possible vehicles for coding of unique information, the implication of which for innovation, cultural development and problem solving in general is highly underestimated in our era of stubborn rationalism.
  • Collective memory. Culturally sustainable communities have intelligent and diverse techniques for storing information about methods, tools and procedures for collective cross modal reflection. In our surface analysis of folklore, we talk about tradition, family and proximity, deploring the rootlessness of modern society. The challenge is to find adequate forms of storing both analogue and binary information in a way that allows us to retrieve useful information across time and space.
Key to the what of cultural sustainability is a flattening of the existing hierarchies within
  • modes of expression/perception (visual <> auditive <> movement)
  • in types of reflection (binary or analogue)
  • and in expertise (expert vs. consumer).

It is the redistribution or democratisation of the processes of cultural expression and it is their embedding in collectives. And it is the empowerment of these collectives, providing them with a ‘cultural filter’ through which new influences can be integrated, making the collectives adaptable to necessary changes, while safeguarding them from damaging attacks from outside political, cultural or commercial forces.

An impulse that might take one form or another according to context. Like this hybrid between flower and leaf, – what happened?

How can this be achieved? It doesn’t make sense to try to recreate the conditions of pre-industrial society, where local communities drew  upon tradition, family and religion for collective problem solving. These archaic entities simply do not have the flexibility any longer to include new elements and processes in the growing interrelatedness of our global societies in a sustainable way. The back-to-the-roots dream of first wave sustainability pioneers doesn’t do the trick. Our current solution, where we have deposited the responsibility for collective problem solving in ever growing mega-organisations certainly doesn’t either.
Let’s take the example of education: Solving the problem of preparing the next generation for developing healthy societies has been allocated to a silo called the school, totally isolated from the actual problem solving activities in the surrounding political, commercial or non-governmental organisations. Since we measure the outcome of this problem solving activity using a binary approach, we push schools towards an ever increasing focus on logico-deductive thinking, thus ruling out the other, analogue ways of reflection. Nevertheless, the actual problems our societies face are more and more complex and their solution requires cross modal thinking and a cross disciplinary approach.
Analogue approaches to evaluation need to be locally embedded, and they require broad skills from those who engage in understanding the scope and character of the problems, the solution of which should be in the hands of the same people who have this direct, analogue and reflected contact with the problems. Our current binary approach to evaluation contributes to the elephantiasis of our organisations with their myopic focus on each one specific problem to solve. Based on our market economy, each silo will fight for its on self-preservation, and there is no logical relationship between the scope and character of the solutions found and the size and relevance of the problems they solve.

The Where of cultural sustainability

Since our current paradigm keeps us busy in a vicious circle of evaluating according to binary approaches, expanding silos, and centralising problem solving activities, there seems to be little sense in trying to make the relevant changes from within the system.
Cultural processes have the capacity of flowing in and out of the other processes, setting up mirrors for the different problem solving activities, and functioning as interpreters between seemingly incompatible systems. They thrive where there is little regulation, in open and porous spaces, and as the central spaces are occupied by the silos, the sites that are left are the street and the web.
The challenge is how to direct all the vibrant energy from these sites into sustainable problem solving activities. Collaborative consumption  is an economically and ecologically sustainable way of solving the problem of distributing goods to ordinary people. Københavns Fødevarefællesskab, KBHFF, is a “member-based and member-driven food co-operative” in Copenhagen, Denmark. By taking this problem solving activity in their own hands, they not only become independent from the one-size-fits-all solutions of the food industry, but as a side effect, since the activities are on a local scale and based on volunteering, the co-operative also work as a vehicle for social sustainability. People meet, talk and collaborate across differences in age, gender and social/cultural backgrounds.
After three years of existence, the KBHFF now has 3 -4000 members, and it is a vibrant organisation that contributes to changes in the culture around food consumption. The backbone for this project is the Web, offering easy, flexible and accessible solutions to the organising of activities, and sharing of knowledge about procedures. The success of the project is probably due to the combination of a real life, socially sustainable element with a virtual, ‘procedurally sustainable’ element.
Learning from the model for collaborative consumption, we might look for the site for a change in our cultural sustainability in a sort of street/web hybrid, where procedures, methods, and tools for analogue reflection, or reflected expression through sound, movement and narration, are being developed in collectives that are locally active, but connected to similar collectives through the Web, the Web being the site for storing and diffusion of knowledge about the how and what of these culturally sustainable activities.
A search for a new cultural sustainability raises the following questions:
  • Who is going to kick-start it? What is the agency of change? Since the actors within the established silos of problem solving are busy administering a centralised bureaucracy of binary procedures, we might think that those working with artistic processes are the right ones to take up the task. Since the artists’ activities are still embedded in a dualistic production-consumption scheme, in order for these experts to be converted into facilitators of cultural sustainability, a radical recalibration of their approaches is needed. There is a huge resource of competency for analogue reflection in the activities of artists, that can be routed into problem solving activities in all areas, enhancing the building up of competencies needed for culturally self-sustaining communities and organisations.
  • How can we make it last? Since the institutions of family/tradition/religion are no longer able to maintain knowledge about cultural processes in a sustainable way, and since no anchoring in a local community seems possible, due to the atomised life style of our welfare society, how can we make sure that the lessons learned in building up cultural sustainability are not lost in the flow of events? It seems that the most important competency we must build up is our ability to handle virtuality. As opposed to the industrial paradigm, where the approach to problem solving required the building of physical walls, and the proliferation of physical products, a culturally sustainable approach must supply us with tools for handling the  ephemerality of analogue reflection. Actually, the tools are already there, the recent developments in technology having provided each of us with devices containing functionalities and infrastructure that makes us fully capable of create, distribute and reflect upon cultural activities in culturally sustainable collectives.

The technology is there. We just need to learn how to use it.

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