Culture connects us to our humanity and this is manifested through the arts.
“Culture is the name for what people are interested in, their thoughts, their models, the books they read and the speeches they hear, their table-talk, gossip, controversies, historical sense and scientific training, the values they appreciate, the quality of life they admire,” the late U.S. writer, Walter Lipmann famously said.
In today’s globalised world, we can perceive the similarities of culture, as defined by Lipmann, in nations of different countries more than ever. Perhaps this is due to the rapid exchange of cultures everywhere, through popular media, and especially through the internet.
And yet, despite the ease of cultural transmissions across the globe, cultural exchange is still an important and crucial aspect of spurring creativity and growth of the arts.
The British Council’s Culture Connects programme fosters and nurtures creative connections between the United Kingdom (UK) and other nations. It aims to enable new experiences, networking, and collaboration internationally.
In Malaysia, the programme has supported the attendance and participation of Malaysian creatives at cultural events in the UK.
Cooler Lumpur’s Executive Creative Director Hardesh Singh was one such delegate, who got the chance to attend UNBOXED, a creativity festival taking place across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and online from March to October 2022.
Hardesh has been involved in the Malaysian creative industry since the early 2000s. He has dabbled in various digital media and worked with the likes of Amir Muhammad and Yasmin Ahmad, before starting out The Cooler Lumpur Festival.
Attending UNBOXED has been an opportunity to discover methods of creating greater impact through festivals.
“I am looking forward to learning more about how festivals can play a part in addressing some of the most pressing issues today – climate change, inequality, sustainability. These are hard problems, and the usual places that these topics are covered are in conferences, but that’s not where the general public is. This is why it’s more important now for festivals to rethink our reasons for being,” says Hardesh.
He observed that festivals are commonly seen as glossy affairs, strongly led by the entertainment factor. But Hardesh believes that festivals can serve a purpose larger than mere flexing on social media.
“Of course, entertainment is an important experience of being human, but everything is at stake now, and it’s important that we use every means possible to address some of the big issues facing us. That is what gets me excited about UNBOXED. All 10 projects at the festival tackled important issues and used creativity to drive engagement and dialogue. I am really looking forward to experiencing some of these projects first-hand, and speaking with the creative teams behind these projects,” he said.
Hardesh added that having run physical events for The Cooler Lumpur Festival annually since 2013, taking a break in 2020 allowed them to reflect on the festival’s deeper purpose.
“(The year) 2020 was the first time we had to skip a physical event. That break, however, gave us the opportunity to think more deeply about the work we really wanted to do.”
Echoing Hardesh’s sentiments, Sharaad Kuttan stated that more than the number of attendees, the success of a festival can be measured by its impact.
Under the programme, curators, creative entrepreneurs, funders, media professionals, officials, producers, and programmers from all over the world were brought together for Edinburgh’s festival season, which took place in August this year.
“I’m interested in the experiences other people have had around the world. I’m in awe of countries that feel that this kind of engagement is important. Many Asian countries have the resources to create similar engagement for their arts and culture festivals but don’t do it. So this is an opportunity to learn from the UK,” said Sharaad.
“At the end of the day, all of the lessons we learn need practical application. We need solutions that speak to the specific venue – whether it’s Selangor, Penang, or Kelantan, wherever we place these festivals, we need to think very deeply about the site, its history, relationship, society, its relationship to literature, and what makes it tick so that you get the impact that you want,” he added.
Sharaad acknowledged that while it may be more challenging to measure the impact of festivals, it is undeniably more palpable than calculating the monetary-based returns on investments.
“Hopefully, we may get more enlightened funders in the future to create better festivals. If I ever get the chance to curate a festival in the future, maybe the lessons I learn at Momentum will go into that.”
Meanwhile, George Town Literary Festival director, Pauline Fan, will be attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2022. The festival celebrates the written and spoken word and will present works from upcoming poets and fiction writers alongside literary greats and high-profile speakers.
“I hope to gain insight into how the Cheltenham Literature Festival — the world’s longest-running literary festival — has made and remade itself over the years. I hope not only to immerse myself in the festival programme, but also to learn more about the festival’s curatorial vision and production practices,” Pauline told Eksentrika.
“An opportunity to meet fellow writers and festival organisers is always special and meaningful, and feels even more so after several years of restricted movement. There’s always an exchange of ideas, and often a confluence of intention and vision at such gatherings. These are spaces where the seeds of creative life are sown, and they continue to take root and grow within us for years to come,” she added.
Alongside Hardesh, Think City’s Director of Urban Mechanics Daniel Lim will also be attending UNBOXED, which has been happening since March and will continue until October this year.
Daniel and his team have been figuring out effective ways to bring people together, from all walks of life and backgrounds, to achieve a positive, collective impact and to make cities liveable.
By attending UNBOXED, he hopes to learn how cities in the UK play an active role in enabling arts and culture within neighbourhoods, public realms, and community buildings.
“I am eager to meet and network with various creatives within the industry who will be attending UNBOXED.
“Who knows, it may be the start of a meaningful partnership for future collaborations,” said Daniel.
He added that he was confident that the existing and mutually benefitting relationship between Think City and the British Council would continue to build and strengthen dynamics between Malaysia and the UK.
He revealed that this has been reflected in collaborations towards Think City’s flagship programmes, such as the development of the Kuala Lumpur Creative and Cultural District – the nation’s very first creative and cultural district centred at the historical and heritage core of Kuala
Lumpur, Downtown Kuala Lumpur.
For multidisciplinary artist Mohd Jayzuan, a self-professed “kampung boy” from Simpang Pulai, Perak, the Birmingham 2022 Festival digital exchange programme was a priceless experience.
The six-month cultural programme started in March 2022 and harnesses the Commonwealth network to spotlight the region’s cultural sector.
“To be surrounded by Commonwealth artists from countries that I was not familiar with, humbled me. To discover each of their works and practices was eye-opening and told me more about what is happening in those countries. I think if we could meet up face to face, it’ll be more impactful and exciting. I am really keen to work with them if there are any opportunities in the future. They are a talented bunch with incredible dedication and passion!”
Jayzuan, who founded the multidisciplinary art collective Projek Rabak intends to achieve two things after travelling to Birmingham; connect with artists abroad and gain as much knowledge as possible.
“Whenever I am involved with any projects, the main thing that I hope to take back is friendship; the relationship between human beings. Getting to know new people is way more interesting than just focusing only on (the task of ) doing art. I love gaining new friends from countries that I’ve not been familiar with.”
Armani Shahrin, the founder of NAKSENI, also derives utmost satisfaction from the chance to learn from international peers.
Armani will attend the Unlimited Festival between 7 to 11 September. The biennial festival showcases ambitious creative projects by outstanding disabled artists and companies.
“As someone who has worked with Malaysian disabled artists, I can see there’s much more to learn and I feel a huge sense of responsibility to represent our local community. We still have a lot more to do to reach a certain level so I am very excited to see what the Unlimited Festival has in store.”
NAKSENI is a company that seeks to elevate the status of artists who are also Persons With Disabilities (PWD). As a small company, Armani shared that NAKSENI undergoes similar challenges faced by startups.
“Any business owner will tell you that it’s not easy, especially to sustain through a global pandemic. Honestly, I had contemplated shutting down at one point. Luckily, we have been able to get opportunities from people who see potential in NAKSENI. It also helps to have a supportive team that is encouraged by our growth despite the hurdles.”
Armani shared that the most daunting aspect of her mission is to normalise inclusivity in society; to remove the hesitancy among members of the public to take part in activities alongside disabled artists.
“We aim to eventually blur the lines for people, to help them see the art first, instead of the disability.”
Armani said the smallest efforts could make a big difference, such as using appropriate terms to refer to PWD.
“I must admit even internally and amongst partners, we sometimes catch ourselves having to unlearn old habits and pick up new and better ways. Social inclusivity will encourage more PWD artists and even their family members, to be confident about being involved in the arts.”
Through the Unlimited Festival, which highlights various disabled artists, Armani hopes to equip herself and her team with the necessary know-how to someday emulate inclusivity for the local PWD community.
“Even the videos they have put up on their website are so thoughtfully inclusive, I would love to see more of such thoughtful measures practised in Malaysia too. Accessibility is not only about venue facilities but also the way we communicate. This (aspect), we tend to overlook as it’s not normalised in our society.
I’m also looking forward to discovering the talented artists being featured at the Unlimited Festival. Hopefully, I could bring back some inspiration to encourage our local artists too.”
Cover image sourced from the British Council Malaysia / Facebook.