Kayla Rush is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, where she is currently writing up her thesis on community arts in contemporary Northern Ireland. Her research interests include performance theory, the senses and the body, and the political economy of arts funding. Here she reflects on her participation in Seminar 2 on Dominant Ideologies at Queen’s University Belfast on 6/7 April 2017.
The second Brokering Intercultural Exchange seminar came at a timely moment in my own work. There is, of course, the welcome matter of simply leaving my office and interacting with other humans: as a full-time PhD student with less than six months left until my submission date, some days I think I’ve completely forgotten any social skills I once had. More importantly, though, at this particular stage in my writing-up process I find it’s easy to become engulfed in my own work, and events like this seminar serve as a reminder that there are others working on similar research, with wisdom, fresh insights, and different approaches.
These different approaches proved to be the most valuable aspect of the seminar for me. As an anthropologist, I felt a bit of an outsider to the discussion, as many (though importantly, not all) of the speakers came from an arts management perspective, or rather, a plurality of international arts management perspectives. I found this meant that I couldn’t fall back on the set of terminologies and assumptions with which I am used to working, either in my fieldwork (the Northern Ireland arts scene) or in my own discipline. I believe being shaken out of the ruts in which we usually think (and sometimes get stuck) can be incredibly valuable; it certainly was for me. I suppose that’s the point of holding a seminar on “Dominant Ideologies.” Afterward, I found myself engaged in an incredibly fruitful email exchange with another researcher who attended, in which I found myself interrogating my own terminology – “community arts” versus “socially engaged arts” versus “intercultural arts,” and so forth – and in which we spoke of finding a balance between nailing down an exact shared set of terms and assumptions; and approaching the matter pragmatically, understanding where we might use different terms, based on local culture, policy, or academic discipline, while really meaning the same thing. There is, I believe, a fine balance to be struck here, and examining our “dominant ideologies” in an interdisciplinary context can only aid the level of understanding in such a discussion.
That said, though, I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, we were talking past each other. For example, on the second day of the seminar, Constance Devereaux led a workshop on “Discourse of Practice,” in which she spoke of “sloppy” ways of talking about culture, words that are used inconsistently, without agreed-upon meanings – words like “excellence,” “audience,” “the arts,” and my personal favorite (and the subject of entire chapter of my thesis), “value.” And yet, where would discussions of arts and cultural management be without these exact words? These same words cropped up again and again throughout the seminar, both before and after Constance’s workshop, and I find myself continuing to struggle with, against, and around them in my own work. This is by no means an indictment of any of the (very excellent) seminar presentations; it is simply an observation that these difficult questions of terminology will continue to follow us, and will certainly continue to trouble me.
I don’t mean to end this reflection on a gloomy note. I think it’s fantastic to get all these messy assumptions out into the open and put them under a microscope, together, as academics and practitioners with shared interests. Perhaps it’s more a reflection of the current messy phase of my own work – and of my own thoughts – than of anything that was said or shared during the seminar. But I believe it’s a line of messy thought that’s worth pursuing further in future seminars. Perhaps this is an area in which the Brokering Intercultural Exchange network can begin to help clear the waters.