Liza Lim

An ‘intercultural’ education

Axis Mundi: Tree of Joy, Tree of Sorrow (2010), artist book by Stephan Erasmus medium: ink on paper, 50x33x33cm, Gallery Brundyn + Gonsalves

I’ll be participating in a forum next week hosted by Cambridge University as part of the activities of the Commonwealth Creativities in Intercultural Arts Network (CIAN). One of the preparatory questions asked by Dr Brydie-Leigh Bartleet, convenor of forum 2, was
‘In your experience what is the single most important thing to take into account when documenting intercultural arts practices?’.  My perspectives arise from experiences as a creative artist rather than ethnographer so some early thoughts are as follows:

An ‘intercultural’ education

I have sometimes described my work as being ‘about’ intercultural exchange – the label is used as a kind of shorthand to describe various kinds of creative transactions ranging from collaborations with performers of Western and non-Western instruments to projects that were based on research into specific cultural practices (Chinese, Indigenous Australian, Northern European), often connected to things like shamanic possession, rites surrounding communication with the spirits and the dead, and ways of entering into liminal or threshold experiences of transformation. Yet I have often felt ambivalent about the ‘inter-‘ part of the label in that, too easily, it posits some notion of the ‘West’ versus the ‘Rest’. The attendant anxieties to that dichotomy, whether my own or projected on to me by others, concern notions of ‘authenticity’ versus ‘tourism’, issues of ownership, and the transgressions of appropriation. I want to rethink this structure with the help of recent reading of the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold who emphasises the dialogic dynamic of  ‘field-work’. He says: ‘anthropologists enter the arena of theoretical debate with far more than ‘data’. They come to it with a set of intuitions, sensibilities and orientations that have been decisively shaped by the field experience. The dialogue in the field, in short, is not just a source of ethnographic facts: for the fieldworker it is also an education.’ (Ingold, T. (2013) ‘Making’, London, Routledge, p.3)

That term ‘education’ rings true for me, and in my case it has been an education that has come about through various meetings, serendipitous and planned, with artists, academics and ritual specialists over many years. This education has taken the form of conversations, active silences, shared activities and journeys of exploration – a curriculum formulated by following hunches and inclinations, often stemming from unexpected meetings or introductions. In this way, the idea of a static or geometric logic of exchange in relation to culture starts to break down – knowledge is not so much passed from one ‘side’ to another but is generated in the engagements of the exchange. The dialogue itself is inherently ‘cultural’, that is, a situated social activity within which some processes of understanding can take place.

What I am foregrounding is not the ‘information’ level but how the process of dialogue enables capacities for action and capacities for understanding to be developed. In this way, the ‘intuitions, sensibilities and orientations’ of participants are part of the shape of new feelings, responses, evaluations and understandings that arise: that is, the dialogue shapes the intertwined capacities for response to and for engagement with meaning. In my projects, I am newly constituted in my feelings and perceptions as I am immersed in processes of learning, making, doing and knowing. In this way, the ‘education’ is about much more than the acquisition of skills and knowledge, for it is truly transformative.