The production, transmission and consumption of media have changed radically within our lifetimes. Swiftly advancing technologies, the rise of social media and rapidly shifting business models have crumbled the divide between journalist and audience. In the media sessions, programmed by The Economist Events, our expert speakers will consider where responsibility lies between content producers, aggregators and consumers of media. Over the four days of the Culture Summit 2019, the panellists will debate the following questions: where is the boundary between free speech, censorship and civic responsibility? How should media outlets responsibly cover the post-truth politician? And, how can media platforms remain open for user content without allowing themselves to be hijacked by malicious actors?
The rise of media-savvy populist politicians, activists and commentators who are adept at generating coverage of themselves and targeting social media to broadcast their comments to a wider audience is leading to a rethink. Where is the balance between providing a platform and interrogating the veracity of their views? Business models for media outlets will also be considered, and with a wave of mass-layoffs at the original “new media” companies what lies in store for business models for media companies old and new in the information age?
While much coverage of the media focuses on how people are retreating into echo chambers where they can have their own opinions repeated back to them, what are the positive impacts of the media? How does the media exert soft power and change attitudes? The media stream will also look forward into how continuing technological change will enable new forms of journalism and enhance old ones. How can tools such as AI scanning social media for breaking news, and software to grapple with big data sets enable new forms of journalism or ways of telling stories? Have news sharing tools exacerbated polarisation of the discourse or merely made us more aware of it? More interestingly, what can be done to combat the problem?
Across the globe, new museums focusing on contemporary art are opening at an unprecedented rate, and established museums are grappling with how to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. Exploring the future of museums has never been more urgent—or more poised for impact. The meteoric rise of digital technology, an evolving definition of culture, and shifting expectations from new audiences demand a reexamination of how museums, seen as stewards, conveners, and seekers, can evolve with the needs and pace of the 21st century.
The scope of these dramatic shifts can perhaps fall under two essential questions: What exactly are the influences shaping the next generation of global art museums? And how can museums thoughtfully engage with the diversity arising from new art histories, while honoring the legacy of the past? These inquiries are at the heart of three panel discussions organized by the Guggenheim Museum, which will invite conversation, idea exchange, and debate between some of today’s leading museum directors, curators, artists, and cultural influencers.
In the first panel, artists Emeka Ogboh and Kudo Takashi join museum digital strategists Lizzy Jongma (formerly of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and Martin Payne (The British Museum) to debate what role technology plays in the museum setting from the unique perspectives of visitors and artists. Moderated by Guggenheim curator Troy Therrien, this discussion explores digital tactics that museums are undertaking to enhance the visitor experience, while staying responsive to artists working with and even inventing new media technologies.
Artists often draw freely from multiple time periods as sources of creative inspiration or as topics of radical critique, but the rigid periodization of history as displayed in our museums makes mixing up temporalities an intellectual taboo. Antonia Carver, Director, Art Jameel; Wanda Nanibush, Curator of Indigenous Art, Art Gallery of Ontario; and artists Shahzia Sikander and Subodh Gupta endeavor to break down this enduring museum tradition: organizing art, objects, and cultures through time-based categories and distinct historical periods. This timely conversation, moderated by Guggenheim senior curator Alexandra Munroe, proposes alternate ways to see the cultural past through the lens of the present, and explores how different approaches towards chronological time can activate museum galleries into more lively and curious spaces.
To conclude the Museums sessions, Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong moderates a conversation amongst leading museum directors who reflect on the boom of new contemporary art museums and their emerging identities as visionary social spaces for education, entertainment and enlightenment. Many of these new international museums are opening in societies under great transition and with relatively little exposure to contemporary art institutions. Aaron Seeto, Director, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN); Suhanya Raffel, Director, M+; Madeleine Grynsztejn, Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Manal Ataya, Director General, Sharjah Museums Authority; and Kulapat Yantrasast, Architect, wHY, dissect the forces shaping these new museums, examine how emerging local, global, young and digitally-native publics are impacting today’s museum culture, and what effect these changes could and should have on museum experiences.
Culture Summit Abu Dhabi offers a timely opportunity for these vital conversations about museums, which can no longer be seen solely as platforms for dialogue and understanding, but as catalysts for transformative ideas and experiences. Anchored by the Guggenheim’s founding belief that art has the ability transcend the quotidian and therefore transform society, each conversation aims to push the boundaries of convention to offer a space for an intellectual collision that we hope will lead to meaningful action.
In response to the broad idea of Cultural Responsibility, the Royal Academy of Arts is programming four panel discussions examining a range of topics that are of critical importance in a variety of ways across the globe. Each will be framed as a question or series of questions and be debated by distinguished artists, architects, curators, museum directors, cultural producers and commentators.
The first session will explore the idea of ‘Popularity versus Populism”. All major museums and many smaller ones aspire to engage with mass audiences and on one level this is admirable but why should art appeal to all? Also, under consideration is the contentious notion of elitism and the denigration of expertise in mass culture alongside the question as to whether or not liberal institutions are too sensitive to criticism. Debating this will be Lars Nittve, the Swedish former director of Tate Modern in London, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and M+ in Hong Kong; Munira Mirza, one-time deputy-Mayor of London with a brief for the city’s cultural life, and Farooq Chaudhry, co-founder of the Akram Khan Dance Company.
Globalised visual culture is the subject of the second session and the question being posed is whether or not it is too dominant an idea to the detriment of local and regional traditions. There is obviously a paradox potentially at play here with museums and galleries seeking to adopt increasingly expansive approaches to their collections and exhibition programmes and to challenge the dominance of various narratives, particularly the traditional history of Western art. But is there is an increasing danger that multi-nationalism actually leads to a universal blandness? Among those wrestling with these issues will be Megan Tamati-Quennell from Te Papa in Wellington, New Zealand and Elana Brundyn from the Norval Foundation just outside Cape Town, South Africa.
The role of art in the public domain and its relationship with architecture is the third topic up for discussion. Public art has a long tradition but the notion of permanent public memorials have been increasingly questioned in recent years as has the status of Public Art as a category apart not to mention the dangers of it being mere civic decoration. Artists Oliver Beer and Sir Michael Craig-Martin, pioneers of new forms of art in public places, go head to head with architect Farshid Moussavi, whose impressive portfolio includes the landmark building for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, USA.
Finally, the critical and complex issue of Freedom of Expression which the European Human Rights Act maintains is for everyone. But outside the specific legal frameworks in which individuals should operate, what are the responsibilities of artists, curators and writers? Put another way, how much should we defend the right to offend and is there a universal moral code that should govern our attitudes towards censorship or is context always the key?
Among those discussing these questions will be artist Monica Narula, from the RAQS media collective in Delhi, the Palestinian artist and writer Khaled Hourani and Zelfira Tregulova, director of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Conceived and organized in partnership with UNESCO, the “Heritage and Emergencies” stream of the Culture Summit will explore, through four separate but related sessions, the challenges and opportunities associated with the safeguarding of cultural heritage in emergency situations, including both armed conflict and disasters. This has become recently a much-debated topic, notably because of the deliberate destruction of monuments and sites by terrorist organizations, and the devastating impacts of wars and natural disasters on cultural heritage. Interest in this question has been aroused well beyond the cultural domain, as the connections between culture and heritage, on one hand, and security and humanitarian issues, on the other hand, were becoming apparent. In this context, heritage can be understood both as a fragile asset to be protected and as a precious resource to strengthen resilience and foster the recovery of affected populations.
The first introductory session, “Why is Heritage a Priority in Crises?” will discuss the reasons why heritage should be given consideration as part of humanitarian response and peacebuilding strategies, through the experience of cultural experts and practitioners. Moderated by Lazare Eloundou, UNESCO Director for Culture and Emergencies, the session will also provide an opportunity to learn about threats affecting heritage in Yemen, plans for the recovery of the Museum of Rio de Janeiro and the positive role that art can play in realizing cultural rights and fostering resilience in the aftermath of a trauma.
The Second session, titled “What is the Role of Heritage in Post-Crisis Recovery and Reconstruction”, will examine the place of heritage in the critical recovery stage after a war or major natural disaster, when many decisions are taken, which will have far-reaching consequences for the concerned populations. Moderated by Dr Shadia Touqan, Director of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, the panellists will share concrete examples of culture-driven recovery and reconstruction initiatives, which emphasize the soft power of heritage in rebuilding the fabric of society, promote reconciliation and foster development following a crisis.
The third session will look into “How can New Technologies Support Heritage in Emergencies”. In recent years, a number of technological developments have occurred, which have revolutionized the heritage field, in particular for the documentation, study and public presentation of cultural properties. Moderated by Einar Bjorgo, Manager of UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), the panellists will shed light on three very different applications of technology at the service of heritage in emergencies, ranging from scientific study and public awareness to access to culture and exercise of cultural rights.
The final session, “Which New Actors for Heritage in Emergencies?”, will highlight the kind of innovative partnerships that the heritage sector will need in the future if it wishes to be integrated into humanitarian, security and peacebuilding operations in emergencies. Moderated by Alessandra Borchi, Coordinator of the UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund, the session will present some of the most relevant experiences so far, placing special focus on new initiatives to mobilize resources to protect heritage in armed conflict, as well as to strengthen the awareness and capacities of parties to those conflicts, including the militaries.
Lazare Eloundou, Director for Culture and Emergencies, UNESCO
Cultural Diplomacy and Responsibility in the Age of New Technology
HE Zaki Nusseibeh, Minister of State, UAE – Moderator
HE President José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Former Prime Minister, Spain
HE President Jorge Fernando Quiroga, President of Bolivia (2001-2002)
Bernadino Léon, Director General, Emirates Diplomatic Academy
What is the role for culture and cultural diplomacy in the age of new technology? Culture Summit 2019 Abu Dhabi opened with a discussion of the role that cultural dialogue can play in informing policy and driving political change.
Welcoming an interested audience of 450 dignitaries and contributors from 90 countries in the fields of culture, arts, media and technology to Abu Dhabi’s burgeoning cultural district on Saadiyat Island, HE Zaki Nusseibeh, Minister of State chaired a panel of three diplomats whose professional lives have been dedicated to using culture as a force for mutual understanding and progress: HE President José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the former Prime Minister, Spain, HE President Jorge Fernando Quiroga, President of Bolivia (2001-2002) and Bernadino Léon, Director General, Emirates Diplomatic Academy.
HE Zaki Nusseibeh set out the context and themes for this year’s the Summit, defining the last quarter of a century as historical moment defined by conflict and pessimism.
Discussing the potential role for culture in a connected by polarised world, Mr Nusseibeh admitted that although cultural identity can be abused it can also bring cohesion to communities and to build bridges, especially in an age of rapidly developing technology.
“Culture overcomes hate because it does not use force but creativity and intelligence,” agreed the former Prime Minister of Spain, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who used the history of Spain, and in particular, medieval Andalucia – Al Andalus – a useful of example of culture and coexistence.
“It unites us and teaches us to live together. There is no culture, civilisation or religion that is superior to any other.”
Calling for cooperation between East and West and for all religions to strive for peace, the Spanish diplomat called for international organisations such as the G20, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council to make culture and cultural diplomacy one of their main priorities.
“We can make culture and cultural diplomacy a public good, now more than ever before in history we can transform the technological revolution into a force for peace.”
Identifying the historical responsibility of governments and corporations to make big data and artificial intelligence a force for good and coexistence, the former Prime Minister also proposed an international agreement of universal digital rights and a United Nations observatory on technology.
“Culture always represent an endless dialogue,” he explained. “A dialogue that brings us closer to peace, that becomes the common language of civilisation.”
Like his Spanish counterpart, HE Jorge Fernando Quiroga, the former President of Bolivia, made reference to the recent human fraternity declaration, the Abu Dhabi Declaration, signed by Pope Francis and Dr Ahmad Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar in Abu Dhabi as an example of what cultural diplomacy can achieve.
“Culture is the rope that binds us together. No matter where you come from, what you look like, it is the thing that enables us to reach the summit of progress and cultural development and that is the value of cultural diplomacy.”
Bernadino Léon, Director General of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy concurred, stating that the language of diplomacy is the language of culture, a language that is based on personal connections.
“Common culture is a way to have diplomacy working at moments of tension and at moments of political difference,” Mr Léon explained. “Today we live in a world in which social media dominates, but social media, like diplomacy, is a medium. What matters is the ideas that these media convey.”
How can media survive the age of technology?
John Prideaux, US Editor, The Economist – Moderator
Mina Al Oraibi, Editor-in-Chief, The National, UAE
John Defterios, Emerging Markets editor and host, CNN Marketplace Middle East
Shashi Menon, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Nervora
How the media can not only survive but thrive in this age of fast-changing, disruptive technology, the subject of the second panel discussion at Culture Summit Abu Dhabi 2019, is very close to the hearts of moderator, John Prideaux, US editor of The Economist, and panellists Mina Al Oraibi, Editor-in-Chief of The National, an English-language broadsheet published in Abu Dhabi; Shashi Menon, Founder and chief executive of Dubai-based publisher Nervora; and, John Deftorios, CNN’s Emerging Markets Editor and host of Marketplace Middle East on CNN International.
For Mina Al Oraibi, Editor-in-Chief of Abu Dhabi’s daily English language newspaper, The National, news media may have changed as a result of technology, but so too have reader expectations.
“Today, publications can no longer rely on the written word,” she explained.
“In some ways this has allowed us to expand beyond a traditional newspaper and its made us more exciting. The paper never goes to bed, it’s constantly updated but if the reader believes that The National is not going to be the most up-to-date news outlet they will go elsewhere.”
For Shashi Menon, the publisher of Vogue Arabia, Wired Middle East and PopSugar Middle East the impact of new technologies on publishing has actually been strangely counter-intuitive. From his background in digital technology and media, in which he used to predict the demise of print, Mr Menon now considers himself to be a convert, not just to print media, but to the traditional values that have always been associated with it.
“What’s still most important is to produce something that matters and that people care about. Even though technology has changed the medium and the visualisation of it, if you don’t produce something that people care about, you don’t exist and that’s been true forever,” he explained.
“Technology is a great tool but it doesn’t solve the root problem of producing something that is meaningful. Where a lot of companies have gone wrong is looking at technology just as a platform for scale and for scale’s sake, which I think is a fool’s errand.”
For both Mr Menon and John Defterios, a news landscape that generates 350,000 tweets a second and information overload has made the role of curation in news even more important.
“Our viewers and readers want reliability. There’s a danger in the market today of an echo-chamber where people of political persuasions go into their own echo chambers that goes into a feedback loop and becomes reality,” the CNN veteran explained.
“We try to break through that by being consistent when it comes to trust and reliability.”
John Prideaux described the new reality, in which there is constant pressure to produce content, as one where there was a need to balance the need to be swift with the need to be accurate and thoughtful. In the age of fake news, trust, it emerged, was more important than ever.
“We are now having to be fact-checkers for both sides of the political spectrum now,” John Defterios added. “That wasn’t a role we had to play. We would report the facts and allow readers to make up their own minds. It’s now our responsibility to make sure that our populations are educated on both sides [of an argument].”
How can museums creatively embrace the digital age?
Troy Therrien, Curator of Architecture and Digital Initiatives, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York City – Moderator
Apinan Poshyananda, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Bangkok Art Biennale
Lizzy Jongma, Senior ICT Project Leader at NIOD Institute for War, Genocide, and Holocaust Studies, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Emeka Ogboh, sound and installation artist
Kudo Takashi, artist and communication director, teamLab artist collective, Digital Art Museum Tokyo
The possibilities and potential afforded museums by digital technologies was the subject of a highly anticipated discussion on day two of Culture Summit Abu Dhabi 2019, which was held at Saadiyat Island’s Manarat Al Saadiyat on April 8.
For moderator Troy Therrien, the museum sector is currently experiencing a level of technologically-driven disruption that is similar to that which affected traditional media a decade ago.
“But now disruption and digital acceleration are no longer dangerous, they’re just a given; it’s the world we live in.”
An artist who specialises in sire-specific, large-scale, immersive sound installations, Emeka Ogboh’s embrace of new technology has been driven, in part, by a desire to provide an afterlife for his works.
“For me it’s been really important to embrace virtual reality because it’s as close as you can get to experiencing the real thing,” explained.
Mr Ogboh’s explained his decision to base himself in Berlin and Paris on the lack of cultural infrastructure in his native Nigeria.
“There are not the museum spaces of any size that can mount the kind of installations that I produce and so in many ways there are a lot of students back home who are not familiar with my work because not everyone can travel to experience them.”
Reflecting on her experience at both the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and in her current role, Lizzy Jongma reflected on the tension between accessibility and authenticity in museums, a debate made all the more topical by the challenges posed by digital media.
For Ms Jongma, digital technologies have the potential to liberate objects that are normally inaccessible and to show a museum’s collection to the world.
“The Rijksmuseum has 1.2 million objects, but there are only 6,000 on display. We can talk all about authenticity and experience but for most objects, the experience is of laying in a box in a storage facility and that’s where they are stuck.”
Since leaving the Rijksmuseum, Lizy Jongma now works in a totally virtual space, digitising objects related to the Second World War in the Netherlands from more than 500 organisations worldwide.
Not only does the project aim to make sense of the material and present it in new ways to a wider audience, it allows families to reconstruct their relative’s lives.
Trained as an artist but having curated for three decades, Apinan Poshyananda is the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Culture in Thailand as well as artistic director of the Bangkok Art Biennale, which spread itself across 20 venues in the Thai capital.
‘We live in a brave new world and I think we are all digital addicts, so when we talk about digital arts in a museum context, there are the haves and the have nots and not all museums are rich.”
Returning to the idea of haves and have-nots, Mr Ogboh, suggested that while virtual reality allows a divide to be bridged between geographical areas with and without arts infrastructure it also offers a temporary solution to a far more vexed question, the repatriation of artworks looted from Africa during the colonial period.
“These artworks have to be brought back home. But in the meantime we need a virtual museum otherwise we will end up with another generation of Africans that cannot connect with their heritage while we are waiting for this to be resolved,” Mr Ogboh insisted.
“For me, it’ about creating a virtual museum that is accessible. In Berlin there are 70,000 artworks from Africa, many of which have never been on display.”
How can we define popularity vs. populism?
Tim Marlow, Artistic Director, Royal Academy of Arts – Moderator
Farooq Chaudhry OBE, Producer, Akram Khan Company
Munira Mirza, Executive Director, Culture, Kings College London
Lars Nittve, Curator, Art Critic, Writer
Moderated by Tim Marlow, the Artistic Director of the 250-year-old Royal Academy of Arts in London, the fourth panel discussion on Monday, April 8 at Culture Summit 2019 Abu Dhabi 2019, discussed the difference between popularity and populism and the merits and potential pitfalls associated with both.
“I believe that the material, the things, the ideas that we work with are extremely important and they shouldn’t be compromised,” insisted Mr Nittve, who likened his career to that of an arts ‘missionary’.
“Because you have two clients: on one hand you have the artist and on the other you have the audiences ad you have to optimise for these two parties, but there are many other pressures and factors in play.”
“We’ve had great [audience] numbers over the years but we certainly didn’t start out popular. We started out by experimenting, taking risks and not softening our creativity,” Farooq Chaudhry insisted.
“Hopefully if we do that well enough, then we engage the public, but the danger of popularity is that once you achieve it, then you spend the rest of your energy trying to keep it and populism is the kind of disease… that comes out of that [desire].”
Mr Chaudhry wondered why notions of elitism plague discussions of culture, when it is never seen to be an issue in the field of sport, and proposed that distinctions between popular and elite culture were to a certain extent illusory, especially in cultural institutions that had the capacity to have a wide range of programming.
“You want to get to a point where people engage with the art but you don’t want to do it for the sake of it and curators and producers shouldn’t get caught up in that game, just for the sake of numbers” he suggested.
“I don’t think we have to be preoccupied with paternalistically telling people what benefit they are going to get from an experience. We just want to open the door, let people in and let them decide for themselves.”
For Lars Nittve, populism in the arts is the equivalent of putting the metaphorical carriage before the horse.
“It’s when there are other things that are driving the content, what you do and why you do,” he insisted. “That’s when populism becomes a dangerous thing.”
But when it comes to policy-makers and politicians, what other metrics do they have to gauge success and impact, Mr Marlow suggested to Munira Mirza, whose career has been dedicated to public art and making culture as accessible as possible.
“There’s always a strong feeling in the cultural sector that reaching the public, engaging with large numbers, creating art that felt relevant and had meaning to people’s lives is a philosophy, really, that people hold with integrity,” the academic explained.
“But I think you can have two ideas in your head at the same time. You can believe in excellence, the authority of the expert, an elite understanding of culture and the arts whilst absolutely believing that people, the audience and the public can engage with it.”
For Tim Marlow, public trust in arts institutions is ultimately key.
“Institutions gain a certain amount of trust if they are popular, but they also gain trust through credibility and a noble failure, rather than a cynical attempt to generate a mass audience that is obviously going for certain big names in a bad way will lose public trust in a bad way.”
Why is heritage a priority in crises?
Lazare Eloundou, the Director for Culture and Emergencies at UNESCO – Moderator
Marylène Barret Adouin, Archaeologist, conservator and winner of the Aga Khan Prize
Alexander Kellner, Director of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro
Ala Younis, artist
When flames consumed the National Museum of Brazil on September 2 2018, turning South America’s oldest museum and scientific institution into a ruin and devastating its collection of 20 million artefacts, it wasn’t just Brazilians that mourned.
Not only had the world lost one of its largest resources of natural history and anthropology, but the tragedy became yet another example of the kind of devastating blow that has been dealt to humanity’s shared heritage in recent years, especially following years of conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Yemen that have seen cultural heritage targeted, looted and destroyed.
In their own ways, each of the participants in the final panel discussion taking place on the first day of Culture Summit Abu Dhabi 2019 had a personal connection with these tragedies.
Moderator Lazare Eloundou, the Director for Culture and Emergencies at UNESCO co-ordinated UNESCO’s response to the destruction of Mali’s ancient manuscripts and monuments.
“The loss of heritage has a serious impact on culture,” Mr Eloundo explained. “When we see our homes destroyed, our cities destroyed because of conflict or natural disasters, it is our social fabric that is gone. It is our cultural references, it is what makes us human.”
While panel participant Marylene Barret Adouin, an expert in cultural heritage, reflected on her time in Yemen where she was responsible for cultural heritage cooperation at the French Embassy between 2003 to 2009, Alexander Kellner, Director of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, discussed the fire that destroyed his museum during its bicentennial year.
“The experience we had with this tragedy was that people hold something, they identify themselves with their cultural heritage and they really care for these things,” Mr Kellner explained.
“And I think that this is why we have received so much support worldwide because each time there is a crisis, you go back to who you are, to your identity.”
The Kuwaiti-born, Jordanian artist Ala Younis also had much to contribute to the debate from an artist’s perspective, stressing the need to interrogate the idea of heritage, even at times of crisis, and to preserve modern heritage, even if it is unpopular. Younis’s research-based work, which makes connections between the modern history of the Arab world and its resonances in mass culture, specifically addressed built heritage and lost architectural histories of Iraq with her 2015 work, Plan for Greater Baghdad.
“Heritage is the result of so many people and experiences, but if we only spend our time attempting to preserve it, then we don’t allow ourselves the time to revisit it and to take our understanding of it to a different dimension.”
Speaking from the floor one of the Culture Summit’s many African attendees, Raymond Asongbang Neba’ane, Director of the National Museum of Cameroon, sympathised with Alexander Kellner.
“Heritage is important in the part of the world where I come from. It is part of the spirituality and religion of the people, it is a matter of sentiment. It defines who we are as people and if the people don’t have access to their heritage they will be cut off from their ancestry,” the museum director explained.
“So I hope, during the course of this Summit, that there will be a recommendation to the Brazilian government, so that they know that the whole world thinks about what happened last year.”
Representing the world: how can the media drive change?
John Prideaux, US editor, The Economist – Moderator
Neha Dixit, Independent Journalist
Carolina Guerrero, Journalist and Chief Executive of Radio Ambulante
Karen Okonkwo, Founder, TONL Media
Established media organisations are often accused of promoting a monoculture. Dominated, often, by privileged, middle-aged men who have an innate bias towards stories and ideas that match their own interests and world view.
This hegemony is slowly being challenged by media entrepreneurs and independent journalists who are finding new routes to new audiences in their desire to tell stories that are more culturally, ethnically and politically diverse.
In the panel discussion that kicked off the second day of Culture Summit Abu Dhabi 2019 John Prideaux, US editor of The Economist, met three women who have dedicated themselves to challenging the prejudices that shape the corporate media so many of us consume.
Based in New York, Carolina Guerrero is a journalist and Chief Executive of Radio Ambulante, a pioneering long-form podcast that tells stories about and for Latinos from across the Americas.
Neha Dixit is an independent, investigative journalist who reports on politics, gender and social justice issues across South Asia from New Delhi.
Karen Okonkwo, a Seattle-based media entrepreneur, co-founded TONL, a stock photo agency, whose aim is to drive innovation and change by supplying the media with images that better reflect the USA’s ethic and cultural diversity.
“We wanted to change the narrative about ourselves in the media so we created this podcast,” explained Ms Guerrero. “We took advantage of the relatively new technology that was transitioning at the time and the large number of Latinos across the continent to develop programmes from across the region…
“What we try to do is challenge ourselves and the image that people have of Latin America, even Latin Americans, and stories that are not often reported” admits Ms Guerrero. “We have this common language but we really don’t know much about ourselves.”
A first generation Nigerian-American, Karen Okonkwo was prompted to start TONL when she realised that she was unconsciously consuming media that depicted the world as almost exclusively white.
“It’s crazy to think that the media has looked this way for decades, centuries and nobody has gone full-throttle to change that,” she said.
Living in a society divided less by race than by caste and religion, Neha Dixit found herself increasingly out-of-step with lifestyle-focused corporate media organisations so had to become an independent journalist in order to pursue the stories she felt impelled to tell.
“If this is the model that the mainstream media is following, there is not much scope to look at the diversity of the society that you are reporting on, which is why the most socially and economically marginalised sections go underreported.”
For Ms Okonkwo, addressing diversity in media and journalism isn’t just a matter of social justice, it is also a matter of innovation and commerce. If media groups or companies such as TONL fail to cater to these groups, Ms Okonkwo argues, that is a failure to cash in on buying power that is being underserved.
For Carolina Guerrero, it is important to have journalists who are from the communities that are being reported on. “You will read stories about Latinos but Latinos are not telling the story, or you will read men talking about women’s issues.”
For John Prideaux, telling stories about things that are foreign to journalists is an essential part of the profession. “You should have enough empathy to be able to write about something that is not of your culture,” he offered.
“In India we do not have enough women in decision-making positions,” Neha Dixit countered. “We do a lot of the reporting but when it comes to making a decision, we are not there.” The same situation exists for Dalits, or lower caste, Indians, who in 2018 comprise 16 percent of India’s population, more than 200 million people.
“There is a 2013 report which tells us that there are only 21 accredited Dalit journalists in the country. This is absolutely ridiculous.”
What is the role of heritage in post-crisis recovery and reconstruction?
Dr Shadia Touqan, Director, Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage – Moderator
Paolo Fontani, Director of the UNESCO Office for Iraq in Baghdad
Ali Ould Sidi, Adviser to Mali’s Ministry of Culture
Anne-Marie Afeiche, Director, National Museum of Beirut
When conflict or natural disaster lays waste to a community, what is lost? Described as the heart and soul of a community, what role can cultural heritage and new cultural programmes play in helping with recovery and reconstruction? Is culture enough, or do international efforts to restore cultural monuments merely detract from more profound failures to rebuild houses, infrastructure, and people’s lives?
Discussing culture’s vital role in post-crisis rehabilitation on the second day of Culture Summit 2019 Abu Dhabi were: Paolo Fontani, Director of the UNESCO Office for Iraq in Baghdad; Ali Ould Sidi, Adviser to Mali’s Ministry of Culture; and Anne-Marie Afeiche, Director of the National Museum of Beirut. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr Shadia Touqan, Director of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, founded under the auspices of Unesco, that works to protect and increase the awareness of heritage and its importance in the region.
Speaking of a famous historical episode of cultural vandalism and restoration, Anne-Marie Afeiche, the Director of the National Museum of Beirut, recounted the trajectory that saw her institution descend into the chaos of the Lebanese Civil War and then emerge, scarred but protected, to be embraced once again by a caring community.
“The first challenge was to open the doors and to invite people in to reconnect with their past. The museum looked like a Surrealist museum filled with objects covered by large blocks of concrete,” Ms Afeiche remembered. “We didn’t even know what was hidden inside. We were quite sure that the collection was still [there], but we couldn’t tell what was really badly damaged.”
After many years of rehabilitation and reconstruction the museum only reopened in its entirety in 2016, 41 years later.
Dr Touqan wondered whether, after everything that the peoples and heritage of the Middle East region have been subjected to, whether heritage professionals are really equipped to deal with the size and complexity of the post-conflict and crisis challenges.
“These historic sites are also people’s homes. It’s not only the beautiful facades and the actual architecture, they are living cities where people have not only lost their homes, their dreams have been suspended. Can we expect them to plug back in if their home or school is gone or if they can’t have running water?”
Doubting whether the existing protocols and international conventions were up to such a task, or even that heritage and museum professionals were prepared, Dr Touqan suggested that something more than a cultural policy shift was needed. Agencies other than UNESCO should assume the responsibility, she argued.
“We have to deal with this new situation with the aid of new technology, and there should be more than a shift. We need a revision of all the charters and even the convention and the guidelines because when you are dealing with a living city you are dealing with people and you have to bring them back in good shape and condition.”
“I think it’s good to have shelter, to have food and to have water, but human beings are more than that,” countered Mr Fontani, explaining that UNESCO’s role was not to be a first responder.
“Even after war and destruction, the intellectual, cultural and spiritual parts of us that make us human beings is there. We still have what made us build Mosul or what makes us build today the Louvre Abu Dhabi,” he continued. “Let’s think about heritage as part of ourselves, but also as a forum for us to continue developing who we are and also as a form of investment in terms of jobs and opportunities.”
“You cannot do anything without the community. They have to be involved at every stage,” Ali Ould Sidi, of Mali’s Ministry of Culture, concluded.
“They are like the owner of a house. You cannot do anything to the house without their permission and they have been taking care of these sites for centuries. They know them.”
Can visual culture be global?
Tim Marlow, Artistic Director, Royal Academy of Arts, London – Moderator
Axel Rüger, Director, the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Elana Brundyn, Chief Executive, Norval Foundation, Cape Town
Megan Tamati-Quennell, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Maori and Indigenous Art, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington
When an increasing number of historians, curators and museums are seeking to explore a multiplicity of histories and to overturn the established historical canon, can there be such a thing as a global visual culture? Should we even aspire to one?
On the second day of Culture Summit 2019 Abu Dhabi Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, led a panel discussion to examine these issues in the company of Axel Rüger, Director of one of the world’s most famous museums, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; Elana Brundyn, the Chief Executive of the recently opened Norval Foundation, a cultural centre that hosts touring exhibitions and runs a lively arts programme in Cape Town, South Africa; and, Megan Tamati-Quennell, the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Maori and Indigenous Art at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.
“There’s currently an admirable tendency to try to represent globally,” explained Marlow, opening the discussion. “But at the same time there is a danger of producing a global bog-standard, where everything becomes similar and the very localism, diversity and traditions that we set out to explore get negated.”
Telling new stories about modern and contemporary art from Africa is a matter of filling in the gaps, championing artists that have been overlooked or deserved to be showcased and being part of a “global village”, said Ms Bundyn. “But I think there has to be more focus on curators to make sure that the blandness doesn’t happen as we look at our shared humanity.”
For Ms Tamati-Quennell, New Zealand and Oceania’s distinctive mosaic of cultures, its relative geographical distance from major centres of the art world and relatively modest funds all act as breaks on any tendency towards sameness and help focus her attention on the local and the specific.
Rather than giving in to an institutional impulse to co-opt everything into an ever-expanding mainstream, Mr Rüger expressed the hope that as more diverse voices and histories were starting to be heard, that this would result in greater sensitivity to different perspectives and modes of presenting ideas.
“The sad truth though is, at the moment, that if you look around at museums in places that people travel to they kind of look the same and collections seem to have become interchangeable, at least on an international level,” he said.
The tendency, Mr Rüger observed, is a drift towards a general model of an art museum where everyone has works by the same, admittedly important, contemporary artists – a list that would, he said, include Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Yayoi Kusama and others.
“People that I know, 98 percent of them can’t travel, they only see my museum,” offered Ms Brundyn, calling for a reconsideration of privilege in discussions about museums becoming increasingly the same. “I have to remind myself that my reality is not their reality. We are trying to balance the need to keep our community close, making them feel safe with the way we programme, while taking them with us.”
Ms Brundyn’s audience in South Africa stands in stark contrast with the one that visits the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, 87 percent of whom have travelled to Amsterdam.
“It’s a very different demographic. So while we want to emphasise the local and be idiosyncratic and have our own voice, there’s also something to be said for developing a collection for your local audience who cannot travel,” suggested Mr Rüger.
He acknowledged that there is “something” about the premise for “more comprehensive museums that they allow you to travel while you stay local.” This, he said, was an approach to curating that struck a chord in the context of Saadiyat Island, where the new Louvre Abu Dhabi’s galleries are predicated on a nuanced, 21st century approach to globalism and universalism.
But he added, “to reconcile those different demands – of the strong local voice and the idiosyncratic – and at the same time to give an outlook into the world” may not be possible.
How can museums activate the past in our present?
Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art, and Senior Advisor, Global Arts at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation – Moderator
Antonia Carver, Director of Art Jameel
Wanda Nanibush, Curator of Indigenous Art, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Shahzia Sikander, Artist
Apinan Poshyananda, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Bangkok Art Biennale
Has contemporary art become its own orthodoxy? If so, how might objects from the past be used, in a museum context, to challenge this and to open up a wider conversation about art and culture that embraces different histories, geographies and new voices?
Moderating the panel discussion, How can museums activate the past in our present?, Alexandra Munroe, the Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art, Senior Advisor of Global Arts at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation and Interim Director of Curatorial Affairs for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, was joined by: Wanda Nanibush, Curator of Indigenous Art, Art Gallery of Ontario; the contemporary artist and miniaturist Shahzia Sikander; Antonia Carver, Director of the new Dubai arts centre, Art Jameel; and Apinan Poshyananda, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Bangkok Art Biennale.
For Ms Nanibush, a member of the Anishinaabe first nation, her indigenous sense of spirituality and temporality afford a profoundly different perspective on time, history, museums and curating.
“I start from thinking of the future, and from the edges of things, always the marginal, the oppressed, the excluded,” Ms Nanibush explained. “If you sit inside there and make that the centre then you are thinking from a future, maybe beyond colonialism.”
Whenever a chronology is made, she continued, “it always centres on another nation’s history, or a global history that still centres Western Modernism.”
Different traditions, spirituality and the tensions that can arise from these have long played a key role in the thinking of Mr Apinan, the Thai artist and curator.
“We’re still struggling with the straightjacketing and pigeonholing of what I call the ‘pale white’ discourse of curatorship,” said Mr Apinan, reflecting on his experiencing of mounting the exhibition Traditions/Tensions in New York in 1996.
“People couldn’t understand why these artists were showing in New York,” he remembered. “Names became problematic, even writing them, pronouncing them let alone trying to understand [the artist’s] faith or belief.”
Mr Apinan credited the biennales that emerged in Australia and Japan in the 1990s for providing contemporary Asian artists with the space to work and exhibit, but also in helping to establish alternative chronologies that have only more recently been engaged with in the West.
“Everyone who has come from abroad may understand that the UAE is incredibly focused on the future,” Ms Carver explained. “So we have a choice about what we want to inherit and what we choose to inherit from elsewhere, what we choose to build from the ground up.”
This perspective informed the decision to make Art Jameel a contemporary arts centre rather than a museum, as well as the decision to try to disrupt traditional binaries of East/West, national/transnational, modern and contemporary, as she said:
“Our philosophy isn’t necessarily about trying to propose an alternative art history, because that begs the question, ‘alternative to what?’, but to think from the ground up and opening historical connections across geographies.”
Deciding what to inherit, not just from history but from different cultures and traditions and deconstructing stereotypes are all central concerns of Shazia Sikander’s work, which evocatively reinterprets the art of Indo-Persian miniature painting.
A Pakistani artist who lives and works in New York, Sikander trained in the school of miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore before proceeding to the Rhode Island School of Design.
“A lot of the things that I am interested in as a [research-based] artist are not necessarily held within the nation state. So how do you create work that constantly defies boundaries in terms of biographies and representing a specific culture?” Ms Sikander explained of her engagement with materials housed in the stores of Western museums. “Whether one confronted being a female artist, a Muslim artist, an Asian artist or Asian-American or Pakistani?”
What constitutes public art?
Tim Marlow, Artistic Director, Royal Academy of Arts, UK – Moderator
Farshid Moussavi OBE, architect
Oliver Beer, artist
Sir Michael Craig-Martin, artist
Wael Shawky, artist
What constitutes public art? Is public art its own discrete category or is it an extension of what goes on in galleries? The tradition of ancient monuments is a long and noble one but what does it still have meaning in the 21st century? Is there a risk that public art becomes a form of propaganda or mere decoration?
To discuss these issues Tim Marlow, Artistic Director, Royal Academy of Arts, moderated a panel that included: the Irish artist, Sir Michael Craig-Martin, whose work has appeared in the public domain the world over; Oliver Beer, who trained as a composer as well as studying film theory and whose work has always straddled different spheres; and the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky who tackles notions of national, religious and artistic identity through film, performance and storytelling.
They were joined by the Iranian-born, British architect Farshid Moussavi OBE, who recently designed an exhibition of work by the ceramicist Magdalene Odundo.
Mr Craig-Martin discussed the ways in which modern technology had made it possible to create very large artworks on a temporary basis, most of which are only possible because of their impermanence.
“It seems to me that the idea of a public work that’s temporary sits perfectly with our time. It makes more sense to me that we make work with a life of a certain period,” he said, suggesting that impermanence was part of our contemporary condition.
Oliver Beer discussed one of his latest projects, which will open at the Met Breuer in New York later this summer. It consists of an orchestra composed of different pots from the museum’s ceramics collection, all “singing” at their resonant frequency.
“For me it’s interesting that a work might be private for a time, but if it survives, it becomes public by definition. The 6,000-year-old vessel that I will be working with has had 200 generations of owners,” he said. “And that for me is one of the most public experiences.”
Mr Beer’s artworks blur the distinction between the public and the private, the monumental and the intimate, an idea that chimed with Farshid Moussavi’s understanding of her own art and craft.
“If you look at a building like the Pantheon, we do not think that we are looking at art or mere building, it’s architecture at its highest level which serves a practical purpose while also having an artistic dimension.”
It is the divorce between art and architecture, Ms Moussavi suggested, that prompted the idea of public art, often as a way of having to compensate for bad architecture.
“Does working in the public domain shift the responsibility of artists?” Mr Marlow asked of Wael Shawky, whose work includes video, performance and storytelling, focuses on societies in transition, especially in the Middle East, which is developing at speed.
“Do you still feel responsibility only to yourself or do you feel more publicly responsible because of the questions and the context that we’re talking about?”
“I think the thing that makes public art bad is when it becomes propaganda,” Mr Shawky responded, referring to a crop of recent Egyptian public art.
The issue directed Tim Marlow back to Mr Craig-Martin’s discussion of the permanent and the temporary.
“Should permanent commissions be questioned now much more than they were in the past?”
“One can’t underestimate how difficult it is to make things that are permanent that are worth being permanent,” Mr Craig-Martin responded. “I think it’s an enormous responsibility but it’s also incredibly difficult to produce something that will have public resonance over time.”
How can new technologies support heritage in emergencies?
Oliver van Damme, Programme Specialist for Planning and Coordination, UNOSAT – Moderator
Dr Emma Cunliffe, Research Associate, Cultural Property Protection and Peace, Newcastle University
Kristen Parker, consulting partner with the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), archivist and curator
Martin Roeske, Public Policy & Government Relations MENA at Google
Yves Ubelmann, President, ICONEM
From Mosul and Aleppo to Hebron and Timbuktu, how best to protect the world’s endangered cultural heritage is one of the central themes being explored at Culture Summit 2019 Abu Dhabi.
On day three at the summit, an expert panel with first-hand experience of using new technologies to survey and interpret at-risk heritage and archaeological sites, discussed how such advances can support heritage conservation and preservation both in emergencies and beyond.
Yves Ubelmann, President and co-founder of Iconem, which specialises in the 3D digitisation of endangered cultural heritage sites, joined Kristen Parker, consulting partner with the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and research associate at Newcastle University, Dr Emma Cunliffe in a conversation moderated by Oliver van Damme, Programme Specialist for Planning and Coordination, UNOSAT, a technology programme that delivers satellite imagery analysis.
An archaeologist by training, Dr Emma Cunliffe’s work now focuses on how technology, and specifically satellite imaging, can improve site monitoring and protection policies by allowing the remote assessment of site disturbance and damage.
“What is really exciting is that there are countries who haven’t had highly technological heritage management systems that now have access to them and that’s a hugely positive step forwards.
“Whole new places are also opening up and archaeologically, people are scanning Google Earth and finding sites that we didn’t even know about and that’s hugely exciting, but there’s also a huge amount of tracking of damage going on in these areas.”
Such technologies also revealed a more fundamental problem, Ms Cunliffe said, the slow attrition of sites due to more mundane threats such as farming and urban sprawl in cities.
The trajectory charted by Yves Ubelmann’s company, Iconem, spans the full range of heritage protection and conservation, from the digital mapping of remote and previously uninvestigated sites to emergency mapping and archaeological advocacy.
Established by Mr Ubelmann in 2013, Iconem’s team travels the globe, combining the large-scale scanning capacity of drones and the photorealistic quality of 3D to create digital replicas of sites in places as diverse as Angkor, Cambodia, Aleppo in Syria and the island of Delos in Greece. The company has also mounted public exhibitions of the images.
An archivist by profession, Kristen Parker has worked more recently with refugees to help them create personal archives that help them to make sense of their displacement.
“I believe that cultural heritage acts as a wayfinding sign that, especially in times of disaster and crisis. It reorients people out of the disorientation of disaster,” she explained.
“We are living in a time of mass displacement and as archivists we have to be really proactive about preserving the historic record right now for future generations so that we can understand what is going on.”
The final member of the panel, Martin Roeske, from Google MENA’s public policy and government relations team, spoke about the tech giant’s recent not-for-profit efforts in the fields of culture and the arts.
“For those who cannot visit archaeological sites or museums in person, we are looking at immersive technologies to see how we can make that happen,” Mr Roeske explained.
Google began first by using super-high definition cameras to capture 2-dimensional objects and then moved on to 3-dimensional objects and archaeological sites using the same 360 degree capture technology that was employed for Google Street View. Augmented reality has also been used to bring together disparate objects in single, online exhibitions such as Meet Vermeer, one of 9000 virtual immersive tours that have been created by Google with 1800 partners in 80 countries.
“There are only 36 Vermeer paintings in the world, they are 18 different locations, one has been stolen, it’s very difficult to get them out of private collections for public viewing.”
How are the new publics shaping our new museums?
Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation – Moderator
Madeleine Grynsztejn, Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Suhanya Raffel, Director M+, Hong Kong
Aaron Seeto, Director, MACAN, Jakarta
Kulapat Yantrasast, Architect, wHY
What role should museums play in the 21st century? Once conceived as lofty palaces of art, new museums are now understood as cultural platforms and fora for debate, a vital part of the urban infrastructure and economy of cities. But in an age of interactive and digital media, what role might the audience play in shaping museums?
Debating the role of audiences in museum planning on the fourth day of Culture Summit Abu Dhabi 2019 were: architect Kulapat Yantrasast, who has most recently been entrusted with transforming the Michael C Rockerfeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Aaron Seeto, Director of the MACAN, the first museum of modern and contemporary art in Indonesia, which opened in 2017; Madeleine Grynsztejn, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and, Suhanya Raffel, Director, M+, a new 65,000 square metre mega-museum of visual culture Hong Kong. The panel discussion was moderated by Richard Armstrong, who has served as the Director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation since 2008.
“We don’t just reflect art history, we produce it,” explained Madeleine Grynsztejn, the MCA’s Director, who reflected on the role played by increased audience expectations. “And today we go by the mantra that we are artist activated and audience-engaged, 50—50 in everything we do but back in 1974, if you saw Chris Burden lying under a sheet of glass and you didn’t get it, we didn’t care, whereas today we better care.”
For Ms Grynsztejn, focusing on issues of diversity, equity and access in the way that museum programmes and staffs is vital given that the US is soon to become a minority/majority country.
“What this is all about is how to be relevant and the way to be relevant is to think about how we can reflect our demographics and speak their language.”
For Museum MACAN, which has a collection that is 50 percent non-Indonesian, this means communicating with a wider Southeast Asian region and an audience that multi-religious, multi-ethnic, young and largely female, which predicates museum practises that are designed to promote empathy.
“We need to find ways to allow people to see themselves reflected in our programmes, for them to feel like they are part of the museum to spark something off in the mind of a young person.”
Modern museums have to be places where people want to go if they are to be a success, suggested Mr Yantrasast, who describes himself as a “matchmaker” between art, institutions and people. “It is competing with shopping malls, cinemas, with our phones…”.
Questioning contemporary museum’s rush towards relevance, Richard Armstrong looked back to a time when museums were seen very differently: “Part of the charm of irrelevance is that you’re not seeing the ordinary, you’re seeing the extraordinary and I think there is something to be said for the museum as a site of irrelevance,” he added. “Sometimes when museums take it upon themselves to be social centres, I wonder because that’s not our expertise, in my opinion.”
“For us the demographic is definitely a young audience and that they are hungry and engaged but at the same time, we also know that integrity lies in expertise and curatorial integrity” insisted Suhanya Raffel, who is working with the architects Herzog + De Meuron to complete M+.
“Expertise is essential, but the idea of value in audience-building in places like Hong Kong which have huge transitory populations.”
“People want to see their own experience, they don’t want to be taught somebody else’s experience,” added Mr Yantrasast. For the architect, the museum experience cannot stop when we exit the building, it has to be something that stays in a visitor’s consciousness, like a brand. “We used to call that the imagination,” quipped Mr Armstrong.
Can we burst the bubble?
John Prideaux, US Editor, The Economist – Moderator
Joyce Baz, Head of PR & Communications Middle East & North Africa, Google
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, Founder and Editor, MuslimGirl.com
Jason Leavy, Managing Director, MENA, VICE Media
Whether newspaper proprietors like it or not, most people who engage with news and social media are unlikely to ever dirty their fingers with print. Algorithms, not editors are increasingly acting as the filter to our knowledge of events, with curated feeds that limit our exposure to material, people and ideas that we may not “like”.
Back in the analogue world, how to burst such bubbles was the question under discussion at the first panel discussion on Thursday, April 11 at Culture Summit 2019 Abu Dhabi.
The timely debate was moderated by John Prideaux, US Editor of The Economist magazine. He was joined by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, author of Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, and founder and editor of MuslimGirl.com, an online magazine written by and for young Muslim women; Jason Leavy, the Mena region Managing Director of VICE Media, a digital media and broadcasting company that launched in 2017 with the aim of producing local content that reflects its youthful Arab audience’s interests and concerns; and, Joyce Baz, Head of Public Relations & Communications (Mena) for the technology giant Google.
Launched in 2015 as a bedroom-based hobby when Amani Al-Khatahtbeh was 17 years old, MuslimGirl.com was designed to provide an alternative space for young Muslim women, their interests and concerns that combated the prevailing atmosphere of Islamophobia in the US following 9/11.
Since then it has grown to become the largest online platform of its kind in the English language, covering subjects from beauty and fashion to pop culture, politics and identity.
VICE, which started as a print magazine in Montreal, Canada, would not have been possible without the online platforms and social media that are often blamed for creating echo chambers and filter bubbles and for proliferating fake news. For Jason Leavy, however, those are also vehicles for spreading positive messages to an audience of millions worldwide. “Like any tool, it’s how you use it and an amazing platform to tell what we consider to be the right stories.”
Joyce Baz outlined Google’s responsibilities and its recent efforts to try to make sure that the information it is unearthing in its search results is not only relevant but is also more reliable and accurate.
Ms Al-Khatahtbeh referenced YouTube’s Creators for Change initiative as an example of this activity. Launched in 2016, the initiative highlights the efforts of creators who use YouTube to positively address pressing social issues while spreading messages of peace and tolerance.
“It is really important for us to have open, independent media platforms, so that we are able to tell our own stories on our own terms,” Ms Al-Khatahtbeh explained, choosing to see online media less in terms of silos than a global conversation that helps to dispel stereotypes.
“MuslimGirl has also become a resource for people from outside the community to really understand issues that are impacting us and that’s truly transformative,” she said.
“Previously, it was very easy to speak on behalf of others and to further oppress them in that way, to silence them but now, with social media, anyone can have that microphone.”
Rather than constantly looking at the dangers associated with digital media, Mr Leavy highlighted those associated with traditional media.
“The Middle East was portrayed as a monolithic entity, wracked by conflict but now there are organisations who present a counter-narrative, it’s an incredibly diverse region, and that’s so critical and so educating,” he said. “Those stories wouldn’t be heard if it was left to traditional media, so that’s something that should be celebrated.”
Who are the new actors for heritage in emergencies?
Alessandra Borchi, Emergency Preparedness and Response, UNESCO – Moderator
Benjamin Charlier, Legal Adviser, Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law, International Committee of the Red Cross
Valery Freland, Executive Director, ALIPH
James Hancock, Lieutenant-Colonel, NATO
Reflecting on the expanded understanding of the role that heritage now plays in the rebuilding of post-crisis communities, UNESCO’s Alessandra Borchi re-stated the notion that its protection and restoration in times of crisis is not just a legal issue, but one that is also vital to the rehabilitation of individuals and communities.
“We used to protect heritage for its intrinsic value. Now we protect it because it helps to rebuild the fabric of a society, because it fosters reconciliation, because it promotes development,” she explained.
“It’s key for us to all keep in mind that whenever we are safeguarding heritage, we are not just dealing with monuments, we are rebuilding lives and this has to guide and frame our action.”
Given the scale of the crisis confronting the world heritage from both natural disasters and those that are man-made, Ms Borchi argued, a more coordinated approach to heritage protection is required not just between actors and agencies – a new multilateralism – but in how they are funded.
It was with this growing need in mind that the ALIPH Foundation was established under the rubric, “protecting heritage to build peace”.
A public/private partnership of several states, private individuals and experts, ALIPH was established as a response to the widespread destruction of monuments, museums and heritage sites in conflict areas.
Established following the international conference on heritage in danger held in Abu Dhabi in December 2016, ALIPH’s genesis was in Fifty proposals to protect the cultural heritage of humanity, which was written by President-Director of the Musée du Louvre Jean-Luc Martinez at the request of the President of the French Republic in November 2015.
These included the creation of an international fund to protect heritage in situations of armed conflict and on the initiative of France and the United Arab Emirates, the idea became a reality, with the creation of ALIPH in March 2017.
Established with the intention of being swift to respond and nimble, one of the main problems, explained ALIPH’s Executive Director, Valery Freland, is finding the right actors who have this ability. There was also a need, he suggested, to break down barriers between different sectors – defence, foreign affairs, culture and humanitarian aid – and to involve all stakeholders.
Benjamin Charlier agreed: “although we have very strong expertise in our fields, more and more communities are becoming more assertive in the role that they want to play in their own fate, survival and recovery,” he insisted.
“There is no way around being as international as necessary but also being as local as possible, to involve people in what they need.”
A Lieutenant-Colonel with the world’s largest military alliance, NATO, James Hancock also reflected not just on the role of the military in helping to safeguard cultural property protection and attempting to prevent collateral damage, but on the reason why this was important.
“After trying to save people’s lives, the next thing to save is people’s reasons for living,” he explained, quoting a Haitian minister of culture.
“That really captures why this is intrinsic to humanity. It’s vital.”
Can we debate freedom of expression?
Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Arts – Moderator
Khaled Hourani, artist, writer and curator, Ramallah
Alexander Kellner, Director, Director, National Museum, Rio de Janeiro
Monica Narula, artist and co-founder of the Raqs Media Collective, Delhi
While there is no doubt that freedom of expression can be debated, what should frame that debate, and are there really universal moral values that can be applied or merely Western ones that are mis-applied globally? When it comes to creative freedom, what, if any, are the cultural responsibilities of artists and writers, museums and universities and how much should we defend the right to offend?
“What this debate isn’t going to be is an affirmation of Western liberal values, in a preachy way, across the world,” Tim Marlow insisted. “That isn’t universalism, it’s just one particular view.”
“When we talk about freedom of expression, we normally mean freedom of speech, but freedom of speech is just a subset of the idea of freedom of expression,” explained Monica Narula, kicking off the discussion. Freedom of speech, she argued, is normally about an individual’s relations with the state, whereas freedom of expression is a more human experience.
“It is conversations between mothers and daughters, I would argue, that determine how freedom gets constituted or changed in other realms,” she said, suggesting that freedom of expression begins in the home or the house with choices made on the micro-level. “What you read, what you eat, how you permit yourself to be touched, how you will live. These questions start in that context.”
Freedom of speech also comes with the freedom to listen. “Are we only paying attention to actions or are we also paying attention to the intention and consequence of that?”
The Ramallah-based artist Khaled Hourani expanded on the notions of freedom of speech and listening to include the freedom to be silent.
“When we think about freedom of speech in the region it raises the issue of politics rather than cultural issues,” he said.
“What people are facing in our time in Palestine and other areas, isn’t only thinking about this issue in local areas but in a wider context.”
Mr Hourani suggested that we are entering a new world order in which conflict has seeped into every issue, contrasting this with the Culture Summit, an event he believed was a source of hope.
“We need to listen to each other and we could use art as an opportunity to understand each other and to achieve a kind of hope for the coming generation, not only in war zones but everywhere.”
While speaking of the many different ways in which freedom of expression might be understood, Alexander Kellner, Director of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro insisted that artists should have total licence, but suggested that it was up to institutions such as museums and galleries to consider their audiences and mission when it came to exhibiting works.
“You have to be responsible for what you say,” suggested Mr Kellner. “It’s accountability. The artist should have all the freedom they want but its up to the museum to be responsible in how they share it.”
“How to use the magic of art? How to be responsible?” asked Mr Hourani. “It isn’t something that is positive all the time.”
HE Sheikh Salem Al Qassimi, Assistant Undersecretary, Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, UAE
Kate Goodwin, Architect, Royal Academy of Arts
Introducing a new Federal initiative aimed at recording and protecting the UAE’s modern architectural heritage, HE Sheikh Salem Al Qassimi suggested that while the importance of the nation’s ancient heritage had long been recognised, a recent wave of what he described as ‘nostalgia’ had helped to draw attention to sites and buildings from the more recent past.
A sometimes maligned and misunderstood phase of the UAE’s built heritage, the architecture associated with the 1960s, 70s and 80s was just as important, he suggested, and in order to to understand which examples from the period merited protection and conservation, a raft of new research, documentation and policy-making was required.
This task, which had historically been the responsibility of local municipalities, was now being taken up at a federal level, HE Al Qassimi explained, because the UAE had decided to approach the architecture and built heritage from the perspective of culture in the same way that it already approached archaeology.
This will be done by a relatively new project, the UAE Architecture Initiative, which is focusing on a programme of education, research, and documentation – a process HE referred to as ‘indexing’ – that would then be fed into a platform tailored to help identify buildings of value.
“We need to understand the buildings in the UAE, so we’re developing a programme with Zayed University that focuses on this area,” he explained.
Reflecting on the way that UAE buildings from the 60s and 70s are sometimes seen as ugly or old-fashioned, the Royal Academy’s Kate Goodwin stated that very similar public perceptions had existed in the UK, particularly around Brutalist architecture, but that with time opinions had changed.
Closing panel and remarks
HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman, Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi
Mohammed Al Otaiba – Moderator
Tim Marlow, Artistic Director, Royal Academy of Arts
Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator, Asian Art, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum; Interim Director, Curatorial Affairs, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
Anna Paolini, UNESCO Representative in the Arab States of the Gulf and Yemen
John Prideaux, US Editor, The Economist
The panel discussions on the final day of Culture Summit 2019 Abu Dhabi were capped by concluding remarks from some of the week’s moderators and HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman, Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi in a conversation moderated by the Summit’s master of ceremonies, Mohammed Al Otaiba.
John Prideaux commented on the remarkable expertise and diversity of the delegates at the Summit, who had come from over 90 nations, and the feat of gathering them together to discuss culture.
“The UAE holds a unique position in hosting these conversations, and this event probably could not have taken place elsewhere in the region.”
The Economist’s US editor also touched on an issue that, as a journalist, was close to his heart: freedom of expression.
“This comes out of tolerance and empathy. At its best, culture itself is about empathy, getting us past our focus on the individual and thinking about our role in wider society,” the Englishman explained. “Culture connects us to each other and to a broad sweep of human history, and contributes to mankind’s best moments.”
Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe suggested that one of the most fundamental insights she derived from the Summit was the need for a fundamental re-think, not just of artistic and historical orthodoxies, but of the way in which we understand the world and our place in it.
“We are at a critical point of shift; a time of radical cultural, technological and political revolution. We must formulate a new social contract, a call to action that starts with ourselves,” she said.
While eschewing universal and globalising initiatives in favour of approaches that were more nuanced, Tim Marlow championed a ‘rhizomatic’, or ground-up approach to development while proposing an international network of Culture Summit-like events that would reflect the diversity of the 350 delegates who had gathered in Abu Dhabi.
Most importantly for the Royal Academy of Arts artistic director, the act of listening was critical.
“Rather than being offended and shutting other voices and opinions out. I believe that articulation of difference is important, and empathy does not preclude disagreement.”
Anna Paolini, UNESCO Representative in the Arab States of the Gulf and Yemen, chose to comment on what all members of the panel agreed had been one of the Summit’s major themes.
“The voice of the youth has been a major theme of the summit, and participation from different age groups is something to consider for next year’s event,” she said, to the agreement of her fellow panellists who suggested that the next Culture Summit should, at least in part, have an agenda designed by and for Millennials.
Picking up on a phrase that had emerged in one of the week’s panel discussions, Ms Munroe, suggested that the phrase “No about us, without us” could be considered a mantra for ensuring diversity of all types.
Pleased with both the quality of the discussions that had taken place in the panels and workshops and the proposals that had emerged from them, HE Al Mubarak insisted that the Summit would result in tangible outcomes.
“A major achievement of this Culture Summit has been the unifying of goals; we are poised to make a real difference to the future, moving from wishing to doing.”