How dare I talk about diversity?
As a white middle-class woman
My name is Josephine Reichert and I am a white middle-class woman born in East Berlin in 1986. For years I have wanted to write about diversity and representation and inclusion in the art world because it’s what I’ve been spending all my efforts on for the past 8 years and it has always been a struggle. I feel like I have to constantly explain why I am doing this to the artists I work with, to funders, to others in the art world, to myself. So this text is a defence I guess, my defence of why I do what I do and what right I have, as a white middle class woman to run an organisation that is “BAME-led” (as the Arts Council coined it, I think anyway [it stands for Black Asian Minority Ethnic]) and represents Black and Brown artists and actively engages diverse audiences.
Side-note: The reason why I have put diversity, representation and inclusion in italics above is because they are overused and politically charged terms. I am using them for want of a better word. “BAME” in quotation marks also makes me cringe. I am citing it because that’s the acronym that funders (such as ACE) use. I know that all this language needs explaining and picking apart properly to really bring across what I mean but this article is already 3 pages long and I thought ‘no one will ready a four page essay’.
Let’s start at the beginning. I am from East Germany and my parents are pretty much self made. My dad is from a working-class family and he was brainy enough to get a PhD in Chemistry and move his family to Brussels after the wall came down. My mum is from a middle-class family and because of this was not allowed (by the DDR regime) to go to uni so she became a nurse (as opposed to a doctor). So it wasn’t the easiest of starts in life for them but my childhood was privileged. I went to a private school in Brussels for 12 years and went to uni in the UK. I now have two MAs - one in Fine Art and one in Philosophy. So yes, I had a privileged upbringing. I am very grateful for that. But/and I have also lived with German Guilt my whole life. Don’t worry I am not bringing this up here because I just said I was privileged and am trying to make myself feel better about it. I am bringing it up because I will come back to it later. Essentially German Guilt refers back to the Holocaust and has meant that as a German child I was constantly reminded of the past of my people and what horrors “we” had done. I think it’s good, that through education, Germany (and its people) might have learnt a lesson unlike most Imperial countries and history might not repeat itself (too soon).
After finishing my MAs, Ridhi, a fellow philosophy student and myself decided to start Ort Cafe. Ridhi didn’t want to be an academic and wasn’t sure what to do after uni and I felt that the art scene in Birmingham was lacking, that the spaces in Digbeth weren’t offering me anything. I didn’t understand what the art work on show there was about and you’d think two MAs would have helped, but I really didn’t understand what the point of the work exhibited there was. And I still don’t. Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying it’s all crap, I just don’t feel like it is “for me”.
Before we carry on with the story of how we started Ort Cafe I quickly wanted to bring up David Osa Amadasun’s article “Black people don’t go to galleries” where he argues that museums and galleries mostly don’t represent Black and Brown bodies is a positive light with little Black and Brown role models on display/working in these organisations and therefore many “BAME” audiences feel like it is “not for them”. I absolutely don’t want to assume that I felt the same when visiting the Digbeth art spaces because I didn’t feel like the work was for me, because it was/is for me. I am part of the elite that works there and for whom the work is created. I just thought it was bullshit that there wasn’t anything more on offer. That there was no diversity.
The cafe was a way for us to start something with our mates, without any money and to think of art as something different, not elitist. So we opened the cafe doors and 400 or so people came to the opening event. Clearly lots of other people in Brum were excited by the idea that there could be something different on offer. We ran the cafe for 4 amazing, exhausting and difficult years. It was the best and the worst job. But for both of us it was brilliant to be able to kick off our careers without any handouts (don’t worry I will get back to this point after the next paragraph).
Ort Gallery was born about a year after the cafe as the space above it was available. And this was very much my baby. It was hugely influenced by the café though because the café had shown us that the community of both Balsall Heath and Moseley (and wider Birmingham for that matter) was very supportive of what we did. The café became a safe space for people who lived in Balsall Heath: anybody seemed to feel safe there. Our visitors actually reflected the diversity of the local residents. We never really did anything towards this, we didn’t even actively encourage it - it just happened organically. But of course we were proud that people liked what we had created and that people felt safe there. So this became the premise for the gallery: expand on our cultural offer that our audiences who are already coming to us want. Offer more of the kind of activities they were lacking in their area: like family craft workshops, showing art by Black and Brown artists, artists who are not seen in the city despite the city being one of the most diverse in the UK, offer opportunities for young people and emerging artists to get involved in, to show their work, to develop their careers… All of this had been lacking when we had graduated and we loved the fact that we could now offer our fellow Brummies better opportunities.
Of course the gallery didn’t generate any income, so we applied for funding from Arts Council, City Council and other funders. Receiving funds was never easy (and still isn’t, if anything it’s got worse, but that’s another article in itself) but because we started small we were successful enough to make it work. But I should point out that myself and many others worked for free for the gallery for several years. Only in the last two years, since 2016, have we been paying staff appropriately. But we did always pay artists appropriately, that’s where most of our funding went to. Paying people properly is, of course, very important and especially when talking about diversity this is a bone of contention. Artists not being paid (at all/enough) is an issue across the industry but Black and Brown artists and artists from low-income background are likely to be experiencing this even more. So we’re back at privilege. And of course, you might say that I only started my own business because of where I came from and I’m sure you’d be right. I don’t want to speak for Ridhi here but I have been supported by my parents in all my life choices all along and I knew I’d have them to fall back on (emotionally and financially) if it all went wrong. We each invested only £30 of our own money into Ort Cafe, a low-risk strategy. But what really made it low-risk for me was the support I had behind me. And this is where privilege really changes people’s life choices. In order to do something like Ort you need a lot more than naivety and a little bit of cash, you need a safety net, confidence and the belief that you can do anything. Over the years I met lots of young people who didn’t have the confidence or the support (emotional and/or financial) to even think of doing something like Ort. These choices are for the privileged.
So you might be wondering why I called Ort Gallery “BAME-led” if a white middle-class woman is behind the organisation. Yes I am the main person behind it, driving it and always believing in it, but an organisation is never just one person. There’s three directors who are legally in charge and Ridhi is one of them and then there’s Ian. So that’s one reason why we’re “BAME-led”. Because one of the main issues with representation is that there’s very few people in leadership positions of organisations (so SMT, CEOs and Board Members) who are not white middle/upper-class middle-aged men (or male pale and stale as someone aptly coined it). You can read more about this here in the ACE’s Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: A Data Report, 2016-17. But essentially it says exactly that, that the creative industries are improving, but not when it comes to high level positions. Yes, Ort Gallery’s directors are unpaid (because they legally have to be), but they do take up paid freelance positions at the gallery if it works for the project. And before you say anything against freelance - all employees at Ort Gallery are freelance because we only get project based funding so we can never guarantee positions for longer. And yes we hope to get to a stage when we finally have core funding and can offer people proper jobs with benefits and safety. If you’d like to write to any funders on our behalf, go ahead! Or if you have some spare cash to support us - you can donate to Ort Gallery’s work here.
Back to “BAME-led”. There is a second working method which (maybe more importantly) makes us “BAME-led” and that’s the fact that we work with people from all backgrounds at all stages of our work. We meet with artists from diverse backgrounds, audiences from diverse backgrounds and creatives from diverse backgrounds who advise us on the work we are planning to do. We plan projects with them, we listen to them, they influence the project and the fundraising, they influence what we do and how we do it, they agree to fees, they agree to budgets - you get the drift. They are properly involved. We don’t just find a Black person to run a workshop for us and then post about it on Instagram so that we can tick that engagement box. And I do really believe that quite a few organisations in this city do this. I know very well that it’s not easy to run an artist-led space in Birmingham in 2018 but tokenistic actions to keep funders happy are totally pointless and make me angry. I believe in a city like Birmingham (and a country like the UK) we have a duty to represent everyone and show work that everyone can take something away from. Whether it’s educational, learning a new skill or about a new topic, changing people’s minds about stereotypes, getting people to talk to one another who wouldn’t usually speak… Duty? Why duty? Because we are using public money for our exhibitions and events. I am not saying that all art has to be accessible and that everyone needs to like or even get it but at least put something in place to ensure people have a chance. So text that anyone can understand or events that support people’s understanding. If white middle-class people are in the minority in our city, then why would we spend millions of pounds on art activity that is of interest to only this small group of people and alienates (often purposefully) everyone else?
I am basically describing colonial structures still being prevalent in our society today. We have still not properly moved on from imperial thinking where a white elite rules over Black and Brown bodies. And being an outsider I can see this clearly. That’s why I mentioned German Guilt earlier. Because it was drilled into me, I was made to feel guilty, even as a 12 year old kid who had nothing to do with the Holocaust. And whilst it might seem cruel to do this it has made me hyper-aware of this kind of imperial thinking and of the privilege I grew up with.
If you got this far and you’re still asking yourself “why am I listening to a privileged white lady chatting about diversity and inclusion” then I have this to say to you: nearly all the big arts organisations (and most of the small ones) in Birmingham (and the UK) are run by white men and these are people who have no idea what it’s like to not be like them and choose to be unaware of their own privilege. So if I can make a stand and speak out for people who don’t and maybe change just a couple of people’s minds then shouldn’t you support the work I do? Or at least not argue against it? Because every white man has to understand that inclusion isn’t just something you do because it’s cool in 2018 but because it needs to happen and because we need to finally break with these colonial thought structures. The change has to come from within the white elite.
Community Leadership (2016)
I started my organisation, Ort Gallery in 2012 and became aware of how I could bring people together, create strong groups and empower others to take charge of their situation. Ort Gallery is an artist-led space and as a trained artist I see my position within the organisation as a cultural producer and curator of the projects I programme. I started questioning the modes of participation of our audiences as part of my artistic enquiry. My curatorial approach of collaboration and conversation was the starting point for my work as a cultural leader.
Ort Gallery is based in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Birmingham with over 80% of residents from BME backgrounds. In order to engage residents from all social groups I started working with community ambassadors, active individuals who act as a middle (wo)men between the community and the organisation. With their help I am able to understand the needs of the groups and how to overcome barriers to participation. This experience has shown to me that issues that stem from diversity can be addressed by bringing people together because the facilitation of dialogue can lead to social change. I want to work towards a more cohesive and fair society.
I believe that I can change society for the better by promoting social mobility and facilitating dialogue between people from different ethnic backgrounds. Especially now when the topic of immigration has become a highly contentious issue, I believe that the private sector need to offer a more informed view than the current media trend in order to protect existing immigrant communities.
I believe that leadership can be a collaborative process. Instead of a top down management model, I believe the community itself can be the decision making body, as long as good communication amongst people is ensured and a strong team emerges. I see myself positioned in the middle of this community group collaborating with the group and taking responsibility for the decisions made. I am keen to use the experience I have made of engaging and developing a relationship with hard to reach communities to create social change.
The YouTube culture seems to create a new generation of communication methods. The sharing options on a global scale allow people to be in control of their communication like never before. News are spread in a new, more immediate manner, however they have undergone a treatment of opinion and subjective viewpoints. Anyone becomes a commentator on society, politics, lifestyle, health, fashion etc. A new truth is created and it is inherently tied to capitalism. Even life choices in connection to family, friends or relationships cannot be fully removed from the consumer culture. Mental states and emotions are just as valid as a purchase of a new pair of shoes. Anyone can become an expert on YouTube, a Guru, a leader of followers and anyone can comment on the Guru's videos, anyone can add their view on any matter. This is done publicly and openly, and above all in a very emotional manner. People either love or hate someone or something, nothing in between seems to exist. And anyone can vote on other people's comments and mark them as spam, report or block them as well as praise them and thumbs up them. Everything becomes important and in the same way everything is trivial. Hundreds of thousands of people watch someone that they do not know propose to their partner and millions watch someone else that they do not know cuddling their pet. There is no scale from the mundane to the awe-inspiring, all is equal, everything is awesome and therefore everything is boring and useless. But whether you call it amazing or boring, either way millions will watch it, share it and like it. So there is no need to even label it amazing or boring. Democracy had finally reached it's perfect point of equality. People vote, people share, they like and they dislike. Anything, everything.
People know what they want and they will get it. Whenever they want and how they want it. Immediately. In HD. Freedom of speech is fully accomplished. You cannot advertise a cigarette brand on TV but you can do so on YouTube. There seems to be no editing, no censorship. Yet all videos are packed full of advertisement paying both YouTube and their video-creating partners enough money to buy houses and fancy cars. 18 year old earn more than their parents from their bedroom. We watch a young woman cry who we have never met in 'real' life, we leave comments, try to comfort her and empathise with her situation. We know her. She's our friend. Her name is Bunny and she lives in Texas. She is going through some tough times. Her name is Anna and she lives in Cork and some people on YouTube hate her. It's tough on her. Her emotions are real and our empathy is just as real. We choose to watch her suffer, no one makes us. We relate to her in a way that we never could to a starving child in Africa. We don't want to watch that, we cannot help this child. But Anna and Bunny we can send them emails and letters and things to their PO Boxes, we can buy their merchandise on their Etsy stores and we can comfort them that way. But if we join Oxfam to help the starving child what good will it do? There will always be another one starving after this one. It's old news, it's always been like that and always will be. The fake-real Anna and Bunny however, they are different. They are better versions of me, more beautiful, more successful and famous, richer, honest and brave, going through tough times and showing me that life gets better.
We're allowed to stalk Anna, she uploads new videos daily, we're part of her life and we witness it all. The happy times and the misery. She wants us to be part of her life, we have permission to be there. She makes voyeurs out of us by leaving some information unrevealed. We sometimes feel like we got there by accident because she forgot to edit a shot out, we see a bit of flesh, a tear, something that was supposed to be hidden. Not all subscribers will have seen it, but we did, I did. I am left hanging at times, pondering about certain details, putting the pieces together myself. The next instalment might give me another piece and I hang on to that until the next video is put online, the next instalment of the repeated virtual reality of mundanity and emptiness.
Some Thoughts (2011)
My family is from East Germany. I grew up hearing stories from my grandparents about their experience of the war as teenagers. It had a huge impression on them and they see themselves as victims. They are adamant that it is not their fault, none of it, they could not have known what was going on, and they do not feel any sense of guilt. We moved to Belgium when I was 6, the socialist regime having had a massive impact on my parent's life by crushing their study dreams and by locking them up in a country they did not feel at home in all their life. Belgium symbolised freedom and wealth for us. We were a close-knit family; we travelled and turned our back on the past. I grew up learning about German guilt, every year reading another world war, Nazi Germany or cold war book, appropriate to the current age. I was never told to feel guilty but it felt like it was expected of us, the right way to feel. So I felt guilty, for my country, my culture and on top of that for my grand parents who I considered ignorant. They should have known better and at least now they could feel remorse. Nowadays I understand that they had to tell themselves that they did all they could in order to keep living their lives. They had not chosen to have a horrible youth, sitting in cellars during bomb raids and running out of their burning school. But what shocks me is their racism, still today, without them realising how racist their comments are, they embarrass me deeply whenever I see them.
I believe that a lot of this made me who I am and it made my assimilation into the British culture more complicated. I struggled aligning myself with what I considered a nanny state: paternalistic messages openly displayed, people following the trends without much reflection, surveillance not only accepted but, as it seemed, blindly trusted. A state that struck me as worse than what my family had run away from, as people seemed to want and embrace this kind of paternalism. I was a bit shocked and found people terribly ignorant. Why didn't they realise how they were contained, controlled, supervised? How dare they expect me to feel guilty for what my country had done and themselves be so ignorant of their own mistakes? So I reflected a lot about what it meant to have the identity I do, wondered about what my past had made of me and how it would influence me in the future. All types of covert and overt surveillance, data collection, privacy and so on fascinated me. I simply could not believe what was happening. How were people so at ease with a system that made them feel free but obviously did the opposite? Was it because I had a completely different notion of freedom that I was more critical, wearier?
These notions of freedom, control and humanity remain in my work till today. They are the driving forces of my artistic enquiry. I started working as a support worker of the elderly, children with cerebral palsy, people with brain injury, people with mental health problems, people with learning disabilities and on the autistic spectrum. I observed all the human notions from misery to happiness. I saw exploitation, abuse, indecency, people unfree, without dignity and respect and I saw the absolute opposite people full of empathy, caring for others, real happiness, love and carefree spirits. I saw respect and support across ages and classes, genders and cultures. I observed life at it's fullest. Yet, the job never had any romantic notion of humanity, everyday life in care homes and support centers is too close to the line of absolute misery to become romantic. There is always a barrier, call it professionalism or distance, either way the line is too fine for one to become comfortable.
These experiences made me reflect on my life and human suffering as well as pure happiness. It made me reassess my thoughts on my family and my new home country and I realised that I had been the most ignorant of all. I had seen the world as black and white, yet it was just different shades of grey. It was too easy to think of a whole nation as ignorant, to justify my own views over others as right. The view of right and wrong suddenly seemed absurd in a world where something like 9/11 can happen. If anything the cold war literature I read tons of in school taught me that it was impossible to think of the world in such a dichotomy. Yet I found myself thinking that way and with what an arrogance! I finally had a reason to feel guilty.
But there was something else that drew me to people that were different, outcast from society, often put away. It was a personal fear on the one hand of losing control over my own or my friends or family’s lives. And I was also drawn to these people who were in such a situation. It wasn't pity, empathy maybe, but the real reason was curiosity. If my life was so simple, so clear, how would it be if it were all different? Didn't schizophrenia perfectly describe the madness of the world I no longer understood? Wasn't that knowledge the only certainty I had? How could I not hold on to it? These people understood something I did not. It fitted so well with my newfound view of the world.
What does it mean to live today? (2010)
How have we – as a society - changed? How does mass culture and virtual communication change us, the way we think, acquire knowledge and behave in society? How much are we influenced by social currents, by political power, the media? When does influence turn into control?
Ideology means that we are caught up in a structure, unaware of it and hence incapable of escaping. Like in a Kafka novel, we get to points in our life, that make us realise that we are on the inside. Like bumping into an invisible wall. We feel powerless against whatever it is that is controlling us. Just like an analogy of the relationship to God the control is executed by political and institutional power today through the individual internalising structures. This means that within us, in our thought patterns and consecutive behaviour, we have absorbed society and its constraints. We imagine that we are free, but are really controlled through indiscernible systems.
Orwell uses the eradication of history and the minimisation of language as metaphors for these systems. It follows in his novel 1984 that new generations get born into a fabricated society and over the generations reality ceases to exist. Orwells dystopia still draws analogies to todays society: mass media, for example, serve similar processes of feeding the masses a fabricated version of the truth and reality.
Of course, in Baudrillard’s terms the values of truth and reality have changed drastically since post-modernity, as signs of power have replaced real power and herewith created a virtual or hyperrealsociety. Reality in a pre-first world war definition is no longer possible due to the dissimination of information on a global scale. Every strand of knowledge has its own definition of a term and uses it for its unique investigation. There is no longer one answer or one truth. As Debord pins down in his The Society of the Spectacle, the ideology itself remolds the whole real to its own specifications. In days of internet and mass communication real experience is replaced by virtuality and the concept of real time becomes impossible.
From here it follows, that we live under the control of power structures, influenced through mass culture, inter-subjectivity and virtuality. We become people that are worth less than our data, not even our thoughts are our own in a cartesian sense. What are we? Beings out of a Sci-fi story, like Huxley’s Brave New World? Blindly marching along with the masses? Dumb sheep following the herd, like Chomksy proposes, just like the society of a fundamentalist regime?
Camus, Sartre, Kakfa, Auster, Huxley, Orwell and many other post-modern writers express this feeling of absurdity, illness and alienation in their novels. We are clinging on to the values and morals that have long lost their meaning. We believe we are free, freer in fact than any generation before us, freer than any society outside the western world: we have rights and we make use of them. But what do they really mean? Are these rights and our freedom just a front to keep us happy, to stop us from thinking more often of that invisible wall we bump into from time to time? It is felt when the voting system is not democratic, when less skilled people get the job you wanted because their daddy had the cash, when your bank denies your credit check because you went to a peaceful demonstration, when you spy around in other people’s facebook accounts, when someone leaves a bag behind on a tube and you feel your heart racing out of fear... But we put it down to our ant-like triviality, don’t we. We accept without knowing what we're accepting…
Hyperreal Thoughts (2010)
In today's society much of old fashioned communication has been replaced by virtual means to interact with others. In fact many therapists are trained today to deal with issues people encounter when being completely displaced from their social environment. Baudrillard goes as far as to to say that reality has been replaced by symbols and signs. We experience a simulation of our own human experience, where the media blur lines between what is really needed and what is a commercial stipulation. We enter, in his words, into a state of hyperreality where we become incapable to discerning between reality and fantasy. I am interested in what effect this ideology has on our thoughts. Even though our thoughts are seen as a radically private concept, Descartes calls it a Private theatre, we are influenced through education and language acquisition in society. Our thoughts cannot remain completely independent of external influence.
In the 1976 Chomsky-Foucault debate this question was disputed. Chomsky argues that we are born with innate concepts, while Foucault is of the opinion that we procure all knowledge through the society we live in. What is interesting is, that Chomsky went on to write many publications dealing with the control media possess over people by manufacturing consent. So in this regard he agrees with Baudrillard that the media society is responsible for a new kind of human experience of reality.
Lyotard describes knowledge as power in a postmodern society. Power states fight over information and data as they used to over land. This has a very clear cut impact on the individual when their private data is collected and shared on a daily basis. The surveillance society has become a modern version of Orwell’s nightmare. We live in a world dominated by information and we experience life as a simulation of its own. This means that our identities are redefined. We are living in a western individualist democracy but are at the same time all adhering to the same principles and ideology. This means that even though we hold the belief that we live a life according to our personal choices and are even encouraged to believe in this freedom, we are part of a shared subjectivity, simply by living according to this model of hyperreality. Our human experience is shaped by society and makes us equal through this process.
Returning to the idea that our thoughts are the one quality of life we hold that is essentially personal and cannot literally be accessed or controlled by power structures, we are influenced by society and cannot think totally free. Being part of a shared experience, we choose to behave according to social norms as part of a human need for social recognition. Like Hegel said, we can only be private when there is a society around us to justify this quality. In several novels of the authors Kafka and Auster, the protagonist is caught in a net of events that he is incapable of solving. He cannot release himself of this situation and is forever prisonner of his own fate. This metaphorically expresses the idea of ideology perfectly. The individual struggles against his personal experience but cannot free himself of the restraints of society. This means that in a hyperreal human experience, our thoughts and thought patterns must become hyperreal themselves, we can no longer differentiate our real thoughts from fabricated ones.