Culture, Ecology and the City | Can the Culture of Arts Influence Citizen Participation to Create an Inclusive Society?

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Culture, Ecology and the City | Can the Culture of Arts Influence Citizen Participation to Create an Inclusive Society?

  In 1962, anthropologist Charles O. Frake defined cultural ecology as "the study of the role of culture as a dynamic component of any ecosyst

The Other Worlds of Water; Stories, Myths and Cultural Landscapes
Parallel Trends


In 1962, anthropologist Charles O. Frake defined cultural ecology as “the study of the role of culture as a dynamic component of any ecosystem”. Through this definition, the relation of culture and the ecosystem a society may be seen as one with numerous many applicable ecological metaphors, such as emergence, growth, evolution, complex interdependencies, systemic fragility, life cycles and webs, as these metaphors all illuminate the way that culture functions. More recently Ann Markussen, the lead author of a 2011 paper, California’s Arts and Cultural Ecology, puts the case in favour, and provides a helpful definition of cultural ecology:


‘An arts and cultural ecology encompasses the many networks of arts and cultural creators, producers, presenters, sponsors, participants, and supporting casts embedded in diverse communities. Forty years ago, scientists and policymakers realized that treating plants, animals, minerals, climate, and the universe as endlessly classifiable, separate phenomena did not help people understand or respond to environmental problems. So they created the integrated field of environmental ecology. In similar fashion, arts producers, advocates, and policymakers are now beginning to strengthen the arts and cultural sphere by cultivating a view of its wholeness and interconnectedness… We define the arts and cultural ecology as the complex interdependencies that shape the demand for and production of arts and cultural offerings.’


John Holden, in his report, The Ecology of Culture (Holden 2015), speaks of culture as being a “work-in-progress, and always a social process. In addition to that, an ecology is non-hierarchical: all the parts are required to make the whole, and in that sense, all the parts are equal.” When questioned for his report by Holden, Samuel Jones, Head of the Director’s Office at Tate in 2014 spoke of the question of cultural ecology as one in which politics, society and culture are interlinked. He goes on to say, “A healthy cultural ecology is an environment where people feel confident and able to contribute to that record, where they can feel part of it, and find an audience. This means that people create culture, (where) subcultures can thrive…” This seems like a highly applicable concept to Pakistani society where cultural roots are strong and have a very big part to play in our precepts for societal norms. The intrinsic link between culture and society as well as the symbiotic evolutionary relationship of the two will, therefore, allow us to see how existing stages may be set up to allow for a discourse which addresses the need for a more inclusive cultural ecology, specifically via using art as a means of community engagement.


2017 saw a large nation-wide survey being carried out by the U.S. Census bureau’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). The focus of the survey was to formulate the most representative and recurring data collection about how adults from all backgrounds engage with the arts. As part of the survey, the SPPA asks about arts attendance, art-making, arts consumption through electronic media, literary reading, arts education, and other cultural activities. Alongside the SPPA, more recently the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) began an annual survey, also in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, to track adults’ participation in attending art, making art, reading literature, and taking arts classes or lessons, with the goal being to understand how these factors relate to frequency of arts engagement by the general public. In a working paper resulting from a NEA research grant, Donald Polzella and Jeremy Forbis, researchers from the University of Dayton, found that adults who attend live arts events “are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviors (e.g., making charitable donations or volunteering, attending community meetings or voting),”a relationship “irrespective of the artistic domain.” They also posit that “the link between exposure to the arts and pro-social behavior is based on the social characteristics of the encounters, e.g., shared group identity, familiarity with performers or artists, multimodal sensory experience, etiquette, venue, and customs or rituals.” And they show that “individuals who are exposed to the arts through the Internet are also more likely to engage in pro-social behavior,” which finding suggests that “live and media presentations are mutually reinforcing.”


In a paper titled Horti+Cultures: Participation and Sustainable Development of Cities, Claudia Madeira quotes from the manifesto article entitled Art Alienated – An Essay on the Decline of Participatory-Art (1989) by Greg Evans, where he emphasized the fact that in capitalist societies, in contrast to others (from primitive to pre-capitalist, e.g. mediaeval or Renaissance, societies), there has been a regression in artistic participation caused by the monopoly of art seen as a commodity/item of consumption and not as participation. In his view, this cycle should be reversed. “As with all forms of human expression, the making of art is an essential part of our being and of our need to express our feelings and thoughts, joys and sorrows.” He also goes ahead to say “…ultimately, then, we must start making our own art in order to begin the process of liberating ourselves from the alienation of commodity culture, and thereby regain our ability to fulfil our expressive needs (Evans, 1989:2)” The philosopher Jacques Rancière (2007) calls this the “emancipation of the spectator”, who should become a participant in artistic processes instead of standing by as a mere receiver, removed from the act of creation. Since the 1990s, a register of this form of engaged art has been formed which has seen the addition of the lexicons for “participative art” which has been expanding the artistic field into post-studio practices and has been given different names: socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, contextual art and (most recently) social practice. One of the characteristics of this “participative art” is that this art generally includes an ethical posture, where social transformation or change is sought. The expansion of participation in art may also be explained both as a basic process, to be set against trends that tend to reduce art to mere consumption and, from a more structural viewpoint, as a form of guaranteeing a more organic and inclusive social performance in the public sphere.


This process has been strengthened with the expansion of the principle of sustainability, which, in being inherent in the planning process, is also being included now in artistic discourse and practices. For some writers, it reflects a “new frontier for art” (Kagan & Volker, 2008).


March of this year saw in Lahore the inauguration of its first Biennale, LB01, which served the purpose of establishing a rapport between the citizens of Lahore and the world of art which previously had been kept firmly behind the unchanging socio-economic divide that is prevalent within a country such as Pakistan. Here, where the connoisseurs of aesthetic and theoretical understanding and appreciation stayed firmly ensconced within the periphery of Duchamp and his Fountain, LB01 presented an opportunity to reach out to the masses and invite them into a world previously inaccessible to them due to the lack of opportunities presented to them by the simple circumstance of their birth. Critical thinking, art appreciation and the creative evolution of a society are aspects of life which do not come on the radar of the average man as part of his daily musings, so how may one avail such platforms in order to engage the city in dialogues which speak towards pressing issues such as the need for a more culturally ecological sustainable society?


According to Madeira, adopting the basis of “participatory art” from the principles of planning and sustainability will have the following underlying elements: the importance attributed to a critical attitude; the notion of participation as a democratic value; and the problematisation of social issues (e.g. social justice, cultural diversity, conservation). This problematisation includes a more comprehensive perspective of the various aspects of sustainability (social, economic, political, ecological and cultural) as well as of the various spatial scales. When associated with the artistic sphere, these methodologies are applied within platforms of collaboration, forums, composed of people from the art world, specialists in various social fields and the general public. These forums aim to develop diagnoses, beginning with urgent social issues in a specific (local or global) territory that allow alternative and more inclusive scenarios to be generated.


Holden has theorized that the idea of the ecology of culture could be conceived as three highly interactive spheres: publicly funded culture, commercial culture and homemade culture. He further goes on to explain the categories as follows:


The publicly funded sector, where the production or maximisation of public goods is assisted by support directly from the state or from philanthropists. Next there is the commercial sector that operates through the marketplace. Here, while individual ‘products’ such as films or songs may fail the test of market viability, overall the sector manages without direct state support. Finally, there is the ‘homemade sector’, where people make culture for themselves and fund it themselves. The convergence and interrelatedness of the three spheres is increasingly being recognized on a global level. Models such as these must be developed within Pakistan on a national scale so as to further allow for the growth of a more holistic and sustainable society.


An aspect of this has been developed by the Lahore Biaennale Foundation, where the platform served to bring together commercial companies, think tanks, education bodies and government organizations together on an urban scale so as to engage the city of Lahore at large. And we must ensure that this is the start of something much bigger than only Lahore.


Pakistan as a society is on the cusp of change. Our election results this year have clearly proven that. The public has now gained more awareness over social and political issues and are ready to be engaged in a dialogue which will further allow them to be emancipated from the ideologies of our political past, which have deeply influenced our cultural and artistic sphere as well. The time is now more than ever to further develop the dialogue between the public and the artistic community to allow for a further evolution of our cultural ecology so that change does not continue to be espoused as merely a concept for a successful election campaign, but manifests itself into the reality that we need it to be.




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