A culture of possibility

Hope is a contraband

Given how things are right now, it feels a bit uncomfortable (and late) to wish readers a Happy New Year, but rituals matter and traditions help keep us afloat in the floods of history. In any case, as we face ecological crisis, pandemic and collapsing political and cultural norms, it seems especially important to hope for a healthy, secure and happy new year. Hope, of course, is not enough. Indeed, there is a line of thought that sees it as a false promise and disempowering. But I prefer Rebecca Solnit’s argument that: 

Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting..

Rebecca Solnit, 2016, Hope In The Dark, Edinburgh

The world is filled with people who work in hope, using it to light their way in dark times. Many of them work through art and culture, humanity’s meaning-making systems, to empower themselves and others, to educate, to heal, to revive and renew, to build community, and to strengthen collective action – in short, to build something better. I’ve written about some of them on this blog (and its sister-sites) and in my books; I speak about them often. Meeting and working with them has strengthened my own hope and courage, which is one of the underestimated but invaluable things we can do for one another.

Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story.

John Berger, 2011, Bento’s Sketchbook, London

This blog has been quiet in recent months, for several reasons, some of which will be obvious. Once the book it supported was finished, I needed a change of perspective, which has come in part from returning to work as a community artist. I also had practical needs to address, even before the measures to contain the pandemic changed everything. Now, though, I’m ready to think and talk about community art again – and to embark on a new journey in the form of a podcast with my friend Arlene Goldbard

A culture of possibility

Hope is invented every day.

(James Baldwin, 1970 Ebony)

During 2020, Arlene and I hosted several online conversations, some of them public, others for specific groups and networks. We also experimented with our own forms of dialogue, including in recording and editing a long text about employment programmes for artists. We have found a lot of common ground and also that our occasional disagreements are illuminating rather than frustrating. We have lived in parallel worlds – Arlene’s American and mine European – and we learn all the time from the connections and discontinuities. So when Owen Kelly and Sophie Hope invited us to contribute regularly to their excellent podcast series, we didn’t hesitate. Nor did it take us long to decide what we wanted to talk about:

Our interests intersect in community arts and cultural policy (both broadly defined). Within those subjects, we see questions of possibility, choice, and hope as critical – especially now, as humanity struggles with the pandemic, climate crisis, and growing inequality. Virtually every community arts project engages people in working for the futures they desire, even if only on a local scale. Often that means overcoming a reluctance to get one’s hopes up for fear of being disappointed. Community artists and cultural democrats know that without dreaming together, our hopes can never be realized. 

So our emphasis in this podcast will be people, projects, and topics that expand possibility and choice through cultural work. When we interview people, it won’t be just to hear their work described, but to explore why they do it, what it means, how they hope it will engage others, what influence or change they are seeking, and so on. With each podcast, our plan is to begin with a conversation with a guest, then conclude with the two of us reflecting on what was expressed. Although we know a lot of people in our generational cohort—community arts veterans—our hope is to hear as much from younger guests reflecting on what’s happening now and what may be coming. 

We’re calling the podcast ‘A Culture of Possibility’ and we’ve committed to doing three podcasts in the first instance, one a month in January, February and March 2021. They’ll be published at midday UTC on the third Friday of each month, on Meanwhile In An Abandoned Warehouse (Owen and Sophie’s podcast site), as well as being available through the usual podcast sources like Apple, Stitcher etc. Now, neither Arlene nor I have made anything like this before, and I’ve no idea whether it will be any good. Arlene is a much more fluent speaker than me so I’ve got work to do, as well as tightening up my thinking. But we’re going to have a go, in the hope that it can be interesting and help strengthen the people and the work in which we both believe. 

The spaciousness of uncertainty

We don’t know what will happen – not just in our experimental podcast, but in 2021. But then, as Rebecca Solnit, in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is the possibility of action. This podcast is one of several new things I’ll be doing this year, and each one of them has a significant prospect of failing. But if they didn’t carry that risk, they’d hardly be worth doing. I’ve never wanted things to go on as they are, and contributing to changing them means launching into the unknown, hopefully.  

Each story is about an achievement, otherwise there’s no story. […] There is nothing to show for achievement except a shared look of recognition. 

John Berger, 2011, Bento’s Sketchbook, London