Cultural Ecologies

Author: Lucy Davies

Thank you David, and Claire, and everyone who has put Culture Reset together, thank you to Michele for such gifted guiding of our group. Hello listening friends.

The group I was in had thinkers far more astute, radical, thoughtful and imaginative than I – it was an incredible group of people – but I agreed to occupy this spot because Claire invited me to reflect on driving change from within an institution.

So I am not going to speak for my group, but my reflections here are massively enriched by them, and that fact – that I am enriched by them – is central to what I would like to say. We are an ecology. We make each other better. We advance when we all advance.

We are in Phase 4 of the roadmap to reopening. We can open our doors and we can make work, but we cannot operate as we used to. The great Bill Mitchell would say that we are in a liminal space – a space between states – the time between the what wasand the next.

But instead of willing on Phase 5, for full houses, for work as we know it to resume, this liminal space is a critical gift. Now, when the conditions are so impossible, is exactly when we can do the radical work. As Gbolahan put it in our group, this is an opportunity for deliberate and intentional change, not just survival.”

As part of the field work for my question, I talked to an architect. She said social science, not just science, will determine our future. ‘What will human beings insist upon?” she asked. What will we insist upon?

Those of us in institutions can often feel beleaguered when we feel everyone insisting things of us. But during this time we need to join in and insist upon things too. Now, while the conditions are so impossible, while everything is so vulnerable, while we are in a liminal transition space, insisting is an essential and positive act towards change.

In five minutes, how can I capture all of my thinking about radical institutional change? So for today I want to talk about cultural ecosystems. Guided by Gloria Steinem: “we advance when we all advance.” 

My Culture Reset question was about cultural ecologies. I am interested in the idea of the 15 minute city, and how culture is found and contributes to this model for sustainable, equitable towns, cities, and nations. I am interested in how very different cultural things in a town, city, or nation connect with each other. And how we can connect better.

David in our group talked of the cultural ecology as a forest and this image of the forest has stayed very strongly with me. He said: “how do we tend to and attend to our ecosystem”? In this Covid storm some trees have fallen and others will fall. How do we tend and attend to death and regrowth with care?

As in any storm the biggest trees are the most vulnerable. So the big institutions were the first to start sending distress signals. The big trees that swallow up so much resource, and get so much light, were now able to access the right power sources to fight for their own survival – but on what terms?

The smaller companies – the smaller trees – proved to be much more resilient, adaptable, miles ahead. Visionary, imaginative, thoughtful, these are the habitats in our ecosystem where exceptional practice, deep cultivation of artists, and genuine social change happens and has continued to happen. And of course the majority of our forest is artists – and they urgently need an effective and evolving ecology of habitats to survive and thrive. Last night we had a zoom with some artists we would have been working with during this season. Speaking specifically to anti-racism work, one of them said she doesn’t want to come back and make work in theatres until the change work is done. Another said “I don’t want to go back and sit in a seat and pretend nothing happened.”

We have to fix our habitats.

We in institutions must spend this liminal time walking in the forest, understanding and valuing the context we sit within and the habitats we must offer, finding the conceptual and organisational relationships between us all, tending and attending.

Because this cultural ecology, this forest, is this nation’s – our four nations’ – common land.

Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, said of Covid’s impacts: The idea of progress will be redefined – reversal is a permanent possibility…. societies have underestimated the importance of social capital as a counter-cyclical stabiliser.”

Our ecosystem and the social capital it holds is going to be critical as a counter-cyclical stabiliser in the months and years ahead. When jobs are lost, high streets are decimated, social injustice is exacerbated, we can counter the economic upheaval with our collective social capital. We have to function like an interconnected and interdependent forest, we have to be available to everybody as their common land.