During the pageantry surrounding the Queen’s death, I was off the island and visiting another - Crete. One day my family and I visited the Archaeological Museum with artefacts dating back almost four millennia. It was impossible not to marvel at the sophisticated technology and craft making, the designs we've struggled to improve upon since. There was a recreation of a beautiful marble house that I could only dream of emulating back home in Penge.
Standing in that museum with the faint echoes of mourners reaching us from thousands miles away, I suddenly understood the foundational truth that civilisations do indeed rise and fall. Throughout human history, many of us have believed that our own civilisation is the apex of human potential - until it isn't and disappears without a trace.
Don’t you feel European civilisation crumbling right now? Another futile supremacist war, the desperate return to politically regressive ideologies, newer generations growing up disenfranchised from the basic needs of food, shelter and capitalism's promise. The climate backlash is beginning to burn tender European skins. Old World symbols are being toppled and the Queen, once the ultimate emblem of western European ascendency, is dead.
The pitting of the Old World against the New has been dubbed the Culture War which plays into our western cultural teaching that civilisations need to be conquered and sides taken - Boomers vs the Gen Z’s, Woke vs the traditionalists.
It’s an age-old battle and for many of us, this either/or narrative has grown ever more reductive. But perhaps there is a fundamental truth in the positioning of culture as a war. Maybe we need to do away with culture altogether if we are to make it out of here alive. Let me explain…
Culture (cap C) saved me. I was a black kid growing up in white far-right environment, an only girl with older brothers. It was a pretty lonely disorientating existence.
Watching films, reading books, seeing the odd play on school trips was a route into life education. Through other’s stories, I learnt what it is to be human and to feel for others. A wild imagination was bred in me. More subtly, art connected me to myself by revealing what touched me. Culture also afforded me a lifetime of work as a curator and maker.
'Cap C' Culture is a by-product of 'small c' culture. Culture is the glue that binds us and shows us how to belong. It’s both human-made and environmental. It's organic while malleable enough to be manipulated. Culture is both external - the food we are offered, the football teams we are expected to support, the music we dance to, the languages we speak - and internal or rather internalised. Culture implicitly, rather than explicitly, shows us how we need to behave to belong. We breathe it in like gas as soon as we enter the world. When we behave in a culturally aligned way, we receive a smile. When we transgress, we are met by a frown. This is how we learn how to be Good Cultural Citizens.
Culture implicitly, rather than explicitly, shows us how we need to behave to belong. We breathe it in like gas as soon as we enter the world.
Culture is also conditional. If I was at a polite party and took it upon myself to get up in someone’s face and cuss them, I would most likely be ostracised. However if I was to behave that way in a pub on a Saturday night where I grew up, I might be patted on the back. We continually witness people being severely punished when they transgress culture. Right now, women are being beaten for burning pieces of cloth in Iran. If I were to kiss a woman in public in 60 countries I would be jailed. Or if I walked past The Queue with a sign that said Down with the Monarchy, I would be arrested.
Essentially culture works by celebrating one set of behaviours and abhorring another. It’s that ‘either/or’ dichotomy again. For example, to celebrate the Queen we must bury the truth of how she and her ancestors acquired and continue to maintain their wealth. In English culture, both ideas cannot co-exist.
So in many ways culture is a war - both an external and an internal one. More importantly, this war is fuelled by our deep fear of belonging or rather not belonging. Culture is the foundation of all traditions, the cause of divisions, prejudices and wars and capitalism is sold on it - all of which characterise a world which may well be facing the end of its' days.
So what if a new world, that bypasses the problems of the old, depends on doing away with culture altogether or, at least, radically transforming our relationship to it?
So what if a new world, that bypasses the problems of the old, depends on doing away with the culture altogether or, at least, radically transforming our relationship to it?
As well as a cultural practitioner, I also practise as a coach. Both are led by the same inquiry. If Culture (cap c) is a composite of the stories that teach us how to belong then coaching provides a glimpse into how we have internalised those stories.
Both external and internal culture relies on celebration and suppression - the promotion and denial of certain aspects of ourselves. For example if you are in a culture that tells you it is wrong to be gay, it is no surprise you might suppress the range of people you allow yourself to be attracted to. We suppress what we are told to.
My work in Culture so far has been characterised by raising the profile and stories of those voices usually buried by creating alternate environments and spaces where non-traditional artists and audiences can gather. This often requires reimagining the environment the gathering takes place. Different forms of expression require different spaces in which to do it.
My work as a coach is driven by a similar inquiry - what stories within us are we burying? How might we experience a fuller awareness if we were to give ourselves permission to listen to those stories and what kind of spaces will help us to hear them?
My work now is to combine both practices in order to transform our relationship with culture by creating imaginative spaces for people and places to explore a more integrated and truthful story about ourselves.
By definition these spaces will hold vulnerability. In many ways vulnerability occurs when we dare to transgress our cultural teachings or we allow ourselves to admit ‘even though I’m not allowed to think or feel this way, I do anyway’. Given this, such spaces need to be designed with great care. I set up the company, The Space To Come, to incubate this practice. We brings artists, thinkers and the public together to co-create spaces that allow us to transform our relationship with ourselves, each other and our environments. These are the guides that I, my colleague Zaynab and our collaborators use to create them:
First and foremost, to understand the relationship between how we are expected to behave and how we really feel requires us to develop a deep trusting relationship with ourselves. So the practice of quiet reflection sits at the heart of many of our projects.
The energy that’s released between people when they finally share an unexpressed story and it is heard with kindness is incredible. It is only when we learn to be with each other this way that our relationships can be transformed. The projects we create centre these kind of conversations.
Because culture works on burying some ideas while celebrating others, the act of surfacing as many ideas as possible helps us to acclimatise to our multifaceted inner and outer world. The art of living expansively means rather than feeling we have to choose between ‘this or that’ we find ease in a non-binary complexity.
Feelings are the root to our truths and they live in the body. Creating space for people to feel might be the most radical act of all.
Culture often steers us toward dominant narratives. However our more transformational ones emerge from what philosopher Bayo Akomolafe calls, the cracks in ourselves and our cultures. What are the stories we fear to share? Maybe these are the ones we should be telling.
Art as ritual
The creation of art is an ultimate act of transformation. Art can help us explore, release and transform stories that have been buried either through creation, participation or encountering works.
The disturbing truth, is culture manufactures shame. Culture tells us what we need to do to belong and shame is the punishment for falling outside its doctrine.
So back to this clickbait headline: do we need to cancel culture altogether? The actual point of this piece is to draw our attention to the fact that currently culture is a shop window for our sanctioned stories and might we create a world of greater possibilities if we were to also give space to our unsanctioned? Because the disturbing truth is culture manufactures shame. Culture tells us what we need to do to belong and shame is the punishment for falling outside its doctrine. A world built on shame splits us in two and ultimately will crack apart. However a world expansive enough to allow for a variety of contradictory complexities, perspectives, knowledge, persuasions and that allows us to grow a collective awareness might be flexible enough to survive.
The only way to change our external culture is to change our internal one first. For that we need compassionate spaces to practise sharing what we previously dared not to.
The only way to change our external culture is to change our internal one first. For that we need compassionate spaces to practise sharing what we previously dared not to. We are all both old world and new and the tension we are experiencing in the outer world is a mirror of our collective internal struggle. So if we want to save the world, once and for all, we might begin to find a way to compassionately make peace with our full blown complexity starting with what we have been told to bury.
Hop over The Space To Come to find out more about our projects
Image: Transforming Culture by Gaylene Gould