Walker Art Center
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Interactions/Intersections: Cultural Globalism and Educational Practice


KMS: Yes. This is reinforced by the way the census is conducted in the United States. There are certain categories of ethnicity that you have to check: American Indian, Latino, Asian, African American, or Caucasian. Those are the labels that we tend to get categorized by, and they influence our philosophy as a culture in general.

MW: The problem of using sweeping cultural identifiers was one of the things our advisors quickly made apparent to us. For example, Chakela was not representing all of Africa. He was representing not even South Africa but the Windybrow Centre for the Arts in Johannesburg, a very specific city, a very specific community-focused organization with a history of developing new works, and a very specific individual.

KMS: The question is: How can we make that complexity more apparent in our educational programming?

SS: Meredith, I've heard you refer to Arjun Appadurai's ideas about how similarities among cultural groups often obscure their differences. He seems to have had quite an impact on your thinking.[3]

MW: Well, his ideas certainly helped me articulate some of the problems with language I have when discussing globalization, specifically cultural globalization. For example, the word culture felt to me like a conceptual place-holder. To discuss Japanese culture or American culture is to describe ways of understanding time, justice, gender roles, or a set of "characteristic" social rules, or players within a historic and political trajectory, and so on, that do not add up to a totalizing force called culture. I might identify a type of interaction or object that is of a culture but not what it means as part of the process and experience of being in a culture. The term isn't dynamic or precise, and so it lends itself to generalities and essentialism.

I value Appadurai's idea that, as a noun, the word culture is not very useful, but as an adjective it is. Instead of discussing culture, we should discuss cultural phenomena. Which leads to another important point he makes: that, at its core, an exploration of cultural phenomena is an exploration of difference--and people demonstrate their differences for all kinds of reasons, very deliberately and self-consciously.

When he sat in on one of our advisory meetings, he parted with the comment that we should include people from cultures not represented in our collection not only as artists but also as visitors. I took that to mean that not only should we expose visitors to all the possibilities of artistic practice but we should encourage them to participate in shaping the discourse here at the Walker as well as in our city. Although our collection isn't, and cannot be, inclusive of all contemporary art, we do represent and acknowledge many histories of art and we do suggest the value of acquiring alternative knowledge by bringing in scholars from different backgrounds and artists from different disciplines. He also addressed the urgency of inspiring our visitors to enter the world of wider representation. For me, it was a call to "incubate little collaborations" (to borrow his phrase) in communities that have their own ongoing projects.

SS: The global advisory committee was, in a way, our institutional effort to incubate a particular kind of small discussion and then to take the resulting issues, ideas, and possible solutions and apply them to our work.

SR: How do these small conversations translate? How do these interactions shift the way we think about our work?

MW: Because I work in this privileged institution there are conversations that I can facilitate. By facilitate, I mean providing a stage and a microphone. I don't have to start conversations in the community. It's not incumbent

3 See Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). Appadurai, an anthropologist, asserts that the concept of culture is neither accurate nor useful as a noun because it implies that culture, physical or metaphysical, is an object. As a consequence of this misapprehension, culture seems to define a substance (such as ethnicity or language) that emphasizes an essential sameness among people identified as being part of a culture. As he explains, "The noun culture appears to privilege the sort of sharing, agreeing, and bounding that fly in the face of the facts of unequal knowledge and the differential prestige of lifestyles, and to discourage attention to the worldviews and agency of those who are marginalized or dominated" [pp. 12-13].

Appadurai offers the adjectival form cultural as the more precise and context-sensitive term for understanding the dimensionality of culture. He further suggests that the cultural attends only to those differences that express or serve the mobilization of group identities.