Cardboard Castles and Other Amenities...

I am really interested in using different forms of cultural action to help build better communities. Communities are a vital social model, allowing us to tackle problems beyond the ability of individuals with the focus of a defined (usually relatively small) group of people. How do the arts and cultural work in general help communities grow more sustainable futures? If you have a cool website or project or your own ideas on these subjects please let me know.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Popularizing the Sacred: From the Maori to the Sufis

The pros and cons of the popularization of sacred symbols is a question I have been wondering about for recently. There are two interesting posts about this subject over at Eyeteeth. Urban Wandjina: Aboriginal Street-Art and The Face of Maori Resistance.

It seems common sense to me that cultures that don’t change disappear. There are many adages from my Western culture about this vary fact, “Trees that don’t bend break” est. I suppose the first question must be is this true? Is a culture more lasting if it is flexible or if it is more absolute? And does long lasting equal better? Or is there more value in a culture that does not change, even if it does not last?

What I wonder are the benefits, drawbacks, and responsibilities in popularizing an ancient and sacred culture. Last semester this came up for me in a directing theory class. I was interested in looking at ritual within theater and so drew upon my personal experience with ritual, which is Sufi Islamic (my order) ritual. So I decided to perform a scene from the play we were working on Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O’Hara, in a dhikr. I was worried that people would not understand the ritual because they did not have the cultural background (my class being almost entirely Western non-Muslim students.) However, what was surprising to me was how successful the piece was. What I discovered was that, although I’m sure the subtleties of dhikr were lost, much of (at least Sufi) ritual is universal. People not only understood that a ritual was being performed (an interesting question between performing and doing), they also saw and felt the ritualistic state that was being created. They also, most importantly, felt that the ritual had added to the quality and power of the performance.

However, this raises many of the questions above. For example, clearly this was not a sacred space (at least in the Islamic sense) and none of my actors had done their ablutions, a necessary part of a proper dhikr, so was this sacrilegious? Also, what is my legitimacy in using this culture “improperly”? On one hand I am Muslim and was raised so. However, I was not raised in a Muslim country with all the cultural knowledge that would endow. As someone who is questioning his faith and thus not practicing Islam does that change the legitimacy of my actions? Finally, and most importantly, what are the benefits and what are the consequences to treating religious culture in a none sacred way?


Saturday, January 20, 2007

“So All May Eat,” What a Good Idea

A good friend of mine and I have this running fantasy of opening a bookstore / cafe / CD store. Well here is a very different way of looking at the restaurant business. SAME Cafe is a restaurant in Denver, where meals is distributed not based on one’s ability to pay but on one’s need of food. The restaurant is funded through donations of patrons. There is also the opportunity for those who want to support the business but don’t have money to work for meal vouchers. Think this can’t work as viable business, check out One World Cafe, which has been going strong for three years now in Salt Lake City. What’s really cool about this is that it is a food distribution model that brings together those who can afford food and those who would normally have to go to a soap kitchen or food bank. For a more thorough article, checkout Worldchanging’sEat What You Want, Pay What You Can.”

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The Individual?

This was posted as a manifesto by Banksy, a British artist. I am not quite sure what to make of it, but I thought it was very thought provoking. It raises the question what is the role of seeing and honoring individual victims in the face of global problems. To me it relates to the whole notions of micro-lending that massive challenges like poverty can and should be tackled through the individual. I have edited it down, but would highly recommend the full version.

An extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945.


I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen. It took a little time to get used to seeing men women and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance. One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect.


It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tatooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

Source: Imperial War museum