Strangeness, cultural exchange and cultural identity

Strangeness, cultural exchange and cultural identity

Today is our fourth day together as 8 collaborators and after yesterday’s NFL experience it feels like we’re really starting to unpick and unravel the complexities of our notion of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. The notion of America as a story and Americans as storytellers keeps returning and ownership over that story is what seems to be niggling us most. Constructing fictions and conducting life through role-play is perhaps not unnatural, perhaps its even a necessity and the U.S.A’s ability to start from scratch and tell its own story from the very beginning is what’s enabled/empowered its individuals to achieve great things. Americans appear to be confident, powerful people and perhaps its the strength of that fiction (could we call it faith?) that has built those attitudes. But what’s bothering us is the distinction between story and brand and who owns that story/brand?

It cost $45 each to see the NFL game. The tier below us cost $60 per seat, the tier below that $180+. It was a pre-season game and it was sold out. The atmosphere was charged, exciting, masculine and boisterous. More than anywhere I’ve ever been I felt a sense of identities being performed. Men jumped around whooping and grunting, women gyrated, a continual war cry of ‘Raiderrrrrs’ could be heard with an elongated American R on the end. A statement of identity. We are Raiders. We are from Oakland. We are American. It didn’t feel false but it was most definitely a performance. This 60,000 strong collective performance should feel revolutionary. It certainly felt thrilling, dangerous and awe-inspiring but it definitely wasn’t revolutionary. The energy is contained in a bowl. Plied with alcohol, beaten on by afternoon sun, instructed by LED signs to ‘MAKE SOME NOISE!’ I felt orchestrated. Watching the players, professional athletes plucked as young boys from their hometowns, trained hard to run in to each other it was hard not to imagine this was one big evil plan to instill hope in the lives of the poor and needy to make it easier to continually take money from them without recourse. But of course its not that simple. The experience of watching the game was a social experience. We’re all here together, we’re all playing together. A continual conversation was taking place casting the Dallas cowboys as the outsiders. The more we emphasised their strangeness, the more we established our own identity. They are not us. They are not from Oakland. But this identity was easy to adopt. This is cultural identity through the putting on of a T-shirt. By virtue of being there we were adopted as members of this culture, our Englishness not a concern, 0ur lack of understanding of the rules of American football not a concern, we were Raiders because we were there and we wanted to participate. I immediately warmed to the people around me despite how different they were to me. I revelled in the camaradarie, the shared jokes surrounding the steep climb to the lofty cheap seats way up high in the hot sun. It all felt hugely alien to me and internally I was lost, a stranger in a strange land for sure, but I wanted to participate in this performance and I was allowed to and that felt good.

The question is, what happens if I don’t want to part of this performance? Am I allowed to not participate? Is this culture accepting of difference only when it still plays by the rules? Whats my role if I refuse to play the game? If I’m really honest about my strangeness and don’t attempt to collude with the majority, what happens then? What if I criticise the team?

We’re all cheering the team on, we’re all compelled by the opportunity to sing ‘We Did It!’, we’re all compelled by the experience of togetherness, of collectively telling a story, emphasising who we are as a collective and forging an identity for ourselves, but what hope is there in this? We can hope to reach the play-offs, we can hope to win the Superbowl, but what then? We start all over?

Whats interesting for me is the apparent possibility within this environment to construct your own identity. If cultural identity really is as superficial as putting on a t-shirt then what fictions can we create for ourselves with that knowledge? What new worlds can we navigate with that power to carve our own identity? As artists are we not the best equipped to undertake these journeys? We’ve talked as a group about the need within American culture to be the ‘best’ at something. Well as artists, as outsiders, as strangers in a strange land is this not what we’re best at? How can we play with the notion of American identity and with our own cultural identities? Can we exploit the power of fiction for revolutionary ends, can we find a way to belong through the construction of identity?

Most of the participants in the workshop have talked about their need through this process to re-engage with aspects of their childhood they had been neglecting. The American-ness they’d disowned in some way that connected to tailgating at football games and baking cakes with American flags was re-surfacing, and there seems to be some confusion about the importance of that cultural memory. The effects of geography and location on our identity and how much we’re a product of our upbringing. Perhaps being an artist is how we wrestle with this question. Perhaps as artists we’re always outsiders uncomfortable with the landscapes imprinted in our memory, designing our own alternative landscapes. We can borrow and steal from our own lives but we can invent and create too. Perhaps that is what really excites me about the experience of the NFL game. The awesome demonstration of the power of fiction and the ease with which we respond to it. Our readiness to find truths in the banality of the coliseum, our ability to find hope in the futility of the football game, the ease with which we mold our cultural identities with T-shirts that say ‘Fuck the Cowboys’. Right now its the advertisers, the politicians and the corporations who are benefiting from it but maybe there’s hope for a future in which its the artists, the activists, the makers, the mothers who tell the story. Maybe those with the tools to build with ideas can take ownership of the story and tell a better one, one thats fairer, more just and more beautiful. Maybe those of us who don’t belong, those of us who feel like strangers in this strange land can create fictions way beyond the imagination of the ‘creatives’ who currently look after our cultural iconography. (Maybe I’m just building a fiction).

This project was set up as a cultural exchange but I’m wondering where that exchange is happening? Is it happening between those with British passports and those with American passports or is it happening elsewhere? I was thinking about the concept of ‘cultural exchange’ before we came and I thought how it would be more radical, more of a cultural experience for me to place my work in the village hall near where I grew up in Northumberland than it would be in San Francisco. The borders are less defined and much more complex than national borders. The area of town just next to where I live is more alien to me than New York. I identify with a French person who doesn’t speak my language much more than I do with a Californian. The borders and identities are so slippery its very easy for us as artists to play with ideas around nationality, ethnicity and cultural identity because those terms are so transient.

Perhaps the task for us in the rest of the workshop is to understand as individuals how we might use this cultural elasticity to our advantage. How we might borrow from, re-shape, re-enact, re-tell and re-imagine current landscapes and re-define the territory?

 

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