"Ludicrous, a whitewash, hypocritical, shockingly unreflective, pretty questionable, very strange, a colonial hangover, neo-imperialist endorsement, incredibly retrograde, lacks self-criticality, certainly bizarre, a parody, out of touch – period, Anglo-centric, tone deaf, summons a sense of the imperial project,frightening, incredibly anachronistic."
Frantz Fanon - from Notes towards an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism
On the day the British Council launched its competition to become an 'explorer', it also happened to be the 50th anniversary of anti-colonial theorist and fighter Frantz Fanon’s death. Strange coincidence no doubt, however, one that sharpened our interest, particularly in relation to our then recently published paper on The Urban Industry.
As two individuals whose lives directly and indirectly continue to be shaped by the results of British colonialism (which was insidiously ushered in by corporations with royal assent/laws/funding, along with numerous charitable and religious organisations and not the homogenous, powerful and centralised entity, as often ‘empire’ is understood) the opportunity to compete to become a British Council 'explorer' appeared retro-grade and problematic to us.
We sought council from a multiplicity of colleagues, associates and friends – people we respect, including several who we imagined would likely have different perspectives to us - hopefully to push us; challenge our assumptions and personal-political perspective. At the same time we were also seeking their advice on what we might be able to do to address our concerns with the call.
We are sharing these conversations now (see below), as on Monday the 12th of March 2012, the British Council’s winners were announced. The names of the 'explorers' were revealed without any information as to how or why the jury selected them over the other 90+ companies, organisations and individuals that entered. Was it a lottery draw? Are the ideas driving these selected explorations irrelevant? Without any information, there seems no choice but to try and start a debate.
Apart from a small handful of responses from academics (see bottom of page), the overwhelming majority of individuals we corresponded with feel the British Council project is …
Ludicrous, a whitewash, hypocritical, shockingly unreflective, pretty questionable, very strange, a colonial hangover, neo-imperialist endorsement, incredibly retrograde, lacks self-criticality, certainly bizarre, a parody, out of touch – period, Anglo-centric, tone deaf, summons a sense of the imperial project, frightening, incredibly anachronistic
The French Communist Party took a pro-active approach in replying to the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition by coordinating a very successful counter-exhibition titled Truth on the Colonies. Interestingly the Communist Party is still rather strong in Venice and they have their own venue/HQ not so far from the pavilion. There is also a new 'section' in the 2012 This Is Not A Gateway Festival call titled: Urbanist Like Me; Cities, Architecture and Design from A Privileged Few, which is a reference to Tim Wise's recently re-published book White Like Me. Who knows maybe the British Council, the chosen 'explorers' or the Venice Biannual itself will set up the possibility to debate these topics?
Below are the emails, we have selected only the relevant sentences, removing for example correspondence about our temporary relocation to Vancouver and other pleasantries etc. Names have been removed.
To add your comments and propositions, please contact us.
. . .
1. This is quite extraordinary... and a complete mess of ideas.
This is quite extraordinary... and a complete mess of ideas. They've certainly got the title wrong. It should be the "Great British Takeaway", as you say, empire redux. The "Venice Takeaway" is something else – the 'great' Venice architecture is a precise example of 'takeaway' Istanbul and the much reviled Islam but of course now 'great and laudable' as part of Venice!
Ludicrous that they can claim this project will "build on the UK's history of LOOKING at the rest of the world"... rapacious eyes perhaps? Euphemism all over the place: 'takeaway' - which in current jargon implies having requested and paid for something - instead of plunder, theft and piracy. And others like 'explorers', 'discover', 'unearth'... from the depths and darkness and bringing it to light, of course, in the UK, and then to claim it is 'original'... more examples of the increasing appearance of Orwell's Newspeak where 'war is peace' etc! The lack of self-reflection/self-criticality is frightening.
And of course it's an old though suppressed topic for the Venice biennale as the entire construct is empire in miniature, with the British pavilion at the top of the long drag flanked by the French etc... and the colonised 'undeveloped' or 'developing' countries/cultures all kept beyond the gates - out of the Giardini of 'Eden' ... except for Egypt which has managed to squeeze in possibly because its 'civilisation' can't be ignored, "fills the museums", though of course it is never seen as part of the 'dark continent' or the Middle East but as a sort of extension of Europe across the lake Mediterraneo.
And there's a complete 'whitewash' of the 'flow of ideas' - the hypocrisy re "changing the way we think"/"travels of architects and overseas students" - overlooking the appalling attitudes to migrants and the devaluation of everything from 'underdeveloped' regions.
It talks about making an 'original contribution' but of course the ideas are somebody else's, 'copied' not 'original'. It's an amazing confession of lack of UK ideas and solutions, failure of imagination. If they had any integrity they should leave the UK pavilion empty and get the Venice Biennale to invite the 'real' producers of the 'great' architecture to show their work in Venice in their own pavilions!
At the same time the text seems to bypass the essential transference of ideas behind cultural changes, which is always two-way not only towards Britain - much 'great' architecture in UK is inspired by Greek temples, Roman columns, Middle Eastern domes etc. Instead of using this genuine approach, this text just reduces it to its just time to go out and take some more - with emphasis on taking.
And then, fundamentally, while it admits there are problems in UK housing etc it suggests completely ignoring local people, what British people need and want, in favour of getting some 'exotic', external, top-down 'solution'. The class divide - which the west also applies to classes of countries - 'great' as in 'great' Britain, 'great' architecture. Who's needs are they aiming at - only the rich, corporate etc... ties in perfectly with the whole Olympic spectacle - impressing others with 'our' greatness.
There is shocking unreflective honesty in the blatant admission 'envy', greed and self-interest: "gather the best and bring them back to the UK". A huge percentage of, for example, nurses and doctors, trained in 'underdeveloped' countries have been gathered and brought back to the UK so people in those countries lack nurses and doctors. It is underlying UK policy approach in all fields.... 'skilled' migrants are acceptable - we'll overlook their not-so-acceptable qualities, like being black.
How close does all this come to piracy? - Intellectual piracy (euphemistically, inspiration), artefact piracy (filling the UK museums), bio-piracy (filling UK botanical gardens) and unfair exploitative 'trade' (filling UK markets with cheap goods while people in the countries of origin work for slave wages and can't afford to buy the same goods, the ones they make/grow etc)...
2. This does seem a pretty questionable (and apparently un-ironic?) way of pitching this call for submissions
This does seem a pretty questionable (and apparently un-ironic?) way of pitching this call for submissions. I think you're right to aim to engage with it critically and directly, and will give some thought as to what might be the best way of doing that.
3. Shrunk approaches to narrow neo-liberal concerns, etc.
It, like any British institution (other than covert subsidy to the militaro-industrial complex and the financial sector) - are asked to tighten their belts, so BC suffers from budget reduction as well. This means that they may have shed personnel, shrunk approaches to narrow neo-liberal concerns, etc. Nevertheless, we have to persevere with these institutions, and try to tweak them at the edge towards our way of thinking, a tall order I know.
4. Leaves out violence, economic coercion and cultural appropriation
I do find the language problematic, as if the entire world was a food court awaiting British patronage. This narrow view of the "UK's history of looking to the rest of the world for inspiration and ideas" leaves out violence, economic coercion and cultural appropriation. Processes that destroyed peoples and industries in the rest of the world, and resulted in massive flows of population, not least of all to Britain, not least of all some of those overseas students mentioned in the Call, who rather than being happily incorporated into British economic life, were more often than not, shut out of appropriate careers and shunted into work below their skill-level. Since the end of the empire, Britain has tried to self-consciously project itself as a facilitator of cultural exchange, and the British Council has been complicit in that project, recommending appropriate artists and performers from abroad for sponsorship to travel to Britain, etc. I am currently writing an article about the Commonwealth Arts Festival of 1965, which was just such a situation.
As I study the British Empire and particularly Commonwealth Immigration to Britain after World War II, these were my initial thoughts. I'm sorry I cannot point you towards more concrete examples of previous calls for exploration. Polar expeditions and the ascent
of Everest were both described in similar language (although it was scientific information to be brought back), to assert Britain's continued geo-political importance.
Best of luck with your critique, and I look forward to hearing where you take this.
5. Places it in a very strange context, and seems not to engage with any of the problematic issues
Although the idea for the Pavilion sounds interesting, I agree that by arguing that "Venice Takeaway will build on the UK’s history of looking to the rest of the world for inspiration and ideas. " in a imperial context of "Trade voyages shaped the modern world; not only filling museums, botanical gardens and markets but also changing the way we think and introducing ideas that have become part of our culture. " places it in a very strange context, and seems not to engage with any of the problematic issues of 'trade voyages' and the 'discovery' of ideas for the enjoyment and benefit of British culture.
It would probably be worth asking them what they think of the context they are presenting and whether they have an advisory board for the project and who will be on it in order to ensure that what could be a constructive process doesn't result in magpie post colonial practices?
Sorry, to clarify about the Advisory Board, I meant beyond the architectural professionals who are listed at the bottom of the email. I was thinking of academics, activists etc., who would sit on or in addition to this group. What were you thinking?
6. Especially the way they make it seem like a continuum to contemporary travel of ideas on architecture through commissions abroad
Yes, there is a colonial hangover in their words and intentions. It is a bit puzzling as some of the words they use such as ‘explorer’, ‘trade voyages’ are clearly problematic, especially the way they make it seem like a continuum to contemporary travel of ideas on architecture through commissions abroad. But at the moment, there is little detail attached to this call that it is difficult to see what they have exactly in their mind. My suggestion is two things –
1. Write to them, since you know them, expressing your concern over a neo-imperialist endorsement of how architecture is produced during both colonial and postcolonial times, and see how they respond.
2. Wait and see what the call for submissions actually produces especially in terms of how different teams have interpreted it. For all we know, there might be people out there who use this as an opportunity to challenge this imperial persistence. Your idea of critiquing it in your festival in 2012 sounds like a good idea.
7. You are right, the British Council call for participation is an incredibly retrograde affair.
8. So rather than offering 'British' ideas to benefit the World, they're asking for the World's ideas to benefit Britain.
It does seem like an incredibly anachronistic proposal. It almost reads like a parody.
Nineteenth century in its thinking not only in the ideas of 'explorers' bringing back treasures to the imperial heartland, but also in the thinking that this is a relevant way to propagate ideas in 2012.
And, actually, the whole concept seems to run counter to the idea of the Exposition/Biennale (as 19th century as that is also). So rather than offering 'British' ideas to benefit the World, they're asking for the World's ideas to benefit Britain.
I'm not sure how far a plan would get to 'reform' the proposal. It seems that the British Council has selected its curator and concept, so don't see much hope of fundamental change. Happy to be proved wrong though.
However, there's definitely an opportunity to offer robust critique, both before and after. And it would make a lot of sense to engage with their launch sessions as a part of this.
It's a tricky thing to engage with, since the whole concept of the Biennale runs along 'national' lines. And, although we certainly don't live in a 'post-national' society, I think it's fair to say that a lot of the most interesting and valuable contemporary cultural activities/artefacts in the UK are driven by the ethnic/national/cultural diversity that now exists here, rather than the possibility for the (presumably white, 'indiginous') British 'explorer' to travel to strange new lands and borrow from them.
9. It certainly seems dull, limp. But maybe this is inevitable in official art.
10. Out of touch period even within the confines of the competition.
The call is certainly bizarre...the thing is that my best friend won the Venice award a few years ago so I am a little hesitant about the fact of the Venice thing itself..but the entire presentation of this..from the imagery, typeface, language, process does not at seem to even keep with the purported "spirit" of Venice anyway..it is perhaps worth reviewing that which has been valued at Venice in recent years and even critique it from that point of view..about being out of touch period even within the confines of the competition.
11. The BC is marketing agency for the UK (though I have never had much to do with them) so I'm not really surprised to see how anglocentric this proposal is....
12. I do think there's a certain tone deafness here, or maybe even a nostalgia for empire.
I think the British Council HAS framed this in an odd way, given the context of how those museums, botanical gardens etc., got hold of their treasures. I do think there's a certain tone deafness here, or maybe even a nostalgia for empire.
13. Had to read it twice to believe what I was reading
As for the BC -it is a little shocking! I had to read it twice to believe what I was reading. As for a response I think go with 1. If no response write and open letter stating the problems
14. They're fucking pinkwashing imperialism.
They're fucking pinkwashing imperialism. I think you could send an article/blog post/ letter criticizing the call for such project in order to push them to re-consider it but maybe just stress on the call being insulting because it could be or they could argue that the actual show is not as bad as the call sounds. If you disapprove now, they'll have to re-think it and then definitely it criticize it again in your next festival.
Most people I know in British Council are lovely and realize that they're working in an institution for culture imperialism and they often (or at least they pretend to) move away from it so they need to be reminded (and criticized) about these things.
SUPPORTIVE - RESPONSES
1. A good advisory board
I’m not sure I read it in the same way – Vicky Richardson is the former editor of Blueprint, and she has assembled a good advisory board. The term “explorer” is in parentheses and the emphasis is on flows of contemporary ideas so could be read in a more open context.
2. It seems to be celebrating openness and exchange
I am not quite sure I agree with your assessment on this, it seems to be celebrating openness and exchange, I don't quite see the connection with the British Empire. Furthermore, it seems to be encouraging the value of importing rather than exporting ideas and recognizing the need for inspiration and learning from other places.
But putting all of this aside, I am a firm believer in cultural freedom, I would never under no circumstances participate in a campaign to stop something happening or force organizers to change their approach. I would be critical, as critical as the case merits, but never stop other people. In fact, given the excellent critical work that you already do, I think you could focus critically on this initiative to expose what you think are the weaknesses and articulate your own approach.
Perhaps as an aside I don’t actually see the need for the British Council. But that’s another story.
3. Big difference is that the empire went out from a position of strength and exploitation, whereas this seems to be framed from a position of weakness and need
Yes, when you put it like that, the words like 'Explorer' and 'bringing things home' do summon a sense of the imperial project. But the big difference is that the empire went out from a position of strength and exploitation, whereas this seems to be framed from a position of weakness and need. So my hunch is that if you made a noise around colonial expansion it would be rebutted quite quickly. My inclination would be to form a strong group of post-colonial activists and bombard them with proposals which are inherent critiques of the call.