Quiet Conversations: The Alpine Fellowship Symposium

by Zoe Bullock

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I'm kneeling on my seat and peering out of the window to see two reindeer grazing at the edge of the water. The hotel dining room juts out on a small peninsula, and the lake surrounds us on three sides. The sky outside is darkening, but it's still shot through with that strange, pale light that will last all the way until morning. The room behind me is warm, wood-panelled and filled with conversations - some gentle, some animated, some intense.

I'm in Fjällnäs, Sweden, on the first night of the Alpine Fellowship Symposium, and I'm already completely overwhelmed.

The Symposium is a yearly gathering of artists and thinkers - writers, actors, philosophers, journalists, academics - who meet to discuss a theme, this year 'identity'. The group is composed of invited guests and competition winners (Fellows) from three disciplines (visual arts, prose/poetry and playwriting). This year, I'm there as a competition finalist for the playwriting prize. The event is an exercise in debate and rigorous discussion, but also an insight into a different world; one of money, power and prestige. It's fascinating, and more than a little intimidating.

Back in Glasgow, I debated whether I should write about the Symposium; whether I could do it justice, whether it would be useful, whether it was the right thing to do. The organisers were quite clear about their desire to keep most details of the event offline. They argued that it adds to the mystery, the feeling of magic that hangs over the three days, the sense of infinite possibility. They argued that if people knew what to expect before arriving - if they knew the guest list, for example - they would come with expectations, preconceptions, even predetermined dislikes of certain people based on their areas of expertise or political beliefs. In some ways, I agree with them. If I'd known who would be there, I would have done my research. I would have been tongue-tied with admiration over half of the speakers, and already apprehensive about the political views of others.

Amongst other things, the Symposium is a space in which people with completely opposing political beliefs - many of whom are in the public eye - can meet, share opinions, and be genuinely open-minded about those perspectives. That is an extraordinarily valuable space to have, and one that was incredible to experience. However, I also think that mystery, whilst useful in some ways, can easily breed a sense of exclusivity which is not helpful. What I learned during the Symposium would be useless unless it was shared. To compromise, I have decided I won't mention any names of the people who were present; in this age of surveillance, the right to personal privacy is an important one. Bearing that in mind, I wanted to write about two areas: the ideas discussed during the many talks and panels, and the structure and identity of the Symposium itself.

Identity

The theme of the Symposium this year was 'identity' - which feels particularly relevant in a time when we place so many labels on ourselves and others. Where do these labels begin and end? How useful are they?

The Symposium addressed these questions from multiple angles. After dinner the first evening, we trekked up the mountain behind the hotel to see an installation commissioned from two South African artists. When we reached the top, we saw a vision of the earth hanging suspended in the night sky. It was like we were standing on the moon and looking at ourselves. We gathered around a small bonfire, a violinist played a beautifully discordant melody, and anything felt possible.

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The next morning, the discussions began. They were wide-ranging and challenging, with titles including On Englishness and Masculinity from 1945 to Brexit, Gender and Identity in Theatre, Post-Colonialism and Post-Truth. A full essay - probably a full magazine - could be written on each topic. Different issues were raised in each panel, but it soon became clear we would find it almost impossible to separate identity from identity politics. One talk was particularly fascinating (Is Masculinity in Crisis? How to Discuss Issues Facing Men) in which a female journalist spoke about interviewing men attending an event run by Jordan Peterson (a popular academic and YouTuber with some divisive views on gender and white privilege, amongst others), asking why they felt heard and represented by this man. I became struck by two truths that seem irreconcilable: white men have experienced levels of power and privilege over the centuries that seriously need addressing; however, there are huge numbers of white working-class men who feel unrepresented, unheard and as if they have lost their place in the world. In ignoring them, dismissing them, accusing them of -isms simply for supporting someone like Jordan Peterson, whom they see as actually speaking to their experiences, perhaps we need to acknowledge that we're not just ignoring a problem, but contributing to it.

In both contrast and complement to that, the panel on Post-Colonialism spoke about the immigrant experience. They introduced the idea that every label, "is both a homecoming and a trap." They spoke about a desire to look at a "messier" migrant experience, and the fact that migrants seen as coming from the same background do not live a culturally homogenous life, but one full of contradictions and diversity. In attempting to fulfil a concept of identity, based on culture and ethnicity, we tend to essentialise and reduce the truth of individual lived experiences into symbols, e.g. "English-ness" or "Indian-ness". Others spoke about the difficult idea that whereas we celebrate diversity of ethnicity, 'whiteness' is often seen as a homogenous mass; this is neither true nor helpful. I was particularly fascinated by these intricacies of personal identity. I consider myself essentially 'white' - but my grandmother is Japanese, and I grew up with many elements of Japanese culture. This doesn't give me the right to claim 'Japanese-ness' - at least, not on the diversity forms you fill out with job applications - but it does affect my identity. I'm sure there are millions of people like me out there - where do we fit in?

These, along with the many other discussions, were all fascinating, challenging concepts to digest - but I was there as a playwright, not an academic. What did they have to do with theatre?

For me, the Symposium did two things. Firstly, it made me consider some of the problems inherent in my own, theatrical bubble. Although theatre can be a magnificent, wonderful safe space for many people, I began to wonder about the flip side of that. Perhaps inevitably, we form part of a current culture of instant kick-back, outrage, and a strange close-mindedness - an immediate association of 'right-wing' with 'bad', 'racist', 'colonial' - that is supremely unhelpful. This is not true of all work, or all people, of course, but part of a general discourse that we need to at least acknowledge, if we aren't to become just as close-minded as those we claim to disagree with.

Secondly, and oppositely, the Symposium reinforced my belief in the absolute power of the arts to bring people together in a uniquely valuable way. Despite all attempts to be open-minded, the talks and panels divided the audience along many lines; class, politics, age, gender. We went down many rabbit holes. The big questions I'd (perhaps naively) assumed we'd be discussing, were never addressed. Questions such as: Are we as a species capable of change? Is the cycle of unacceptance one that will repeat in the future as it has done for the entirety of human history? Are we on an upward trajectory, or a cyclical one?

These are impossible questions to answer - which is maybe why they're so compelling. Perhaps the only times we even came close to addressing them were in three moments of genuine, human connection: after the competition winner's play-reading (which addressed individual struggles with identity over a game of Dungeons and Dragons), during an acoustic set from a brilliant all-female band hired for the event, and on the final night, when someone had the genius idea to put on some music and, gradually, we all started to dance. Eyeliner started to smudge, enough sweat ran off us to flood the lake outside, and suddenly there we were; political commentator shoulder-to-shoulder with emerging writer, screaming the words to Busted. In this absurd environment, dancing was the greatest leveller I experienced. These were not intellectual moments, but instances of pure feeling, whether emotional or physical. Regardless of ethnicity, gender or class, these were the moments we could all identify with.

'Identity' is a knotty, charged issue, for which there are no easy answers - but feelings are universal. Perhaps this is the work of theatre; each time we present people with the opportunity to feel something together, we add another small brick to a bridge that might eventually cross a river.

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The Symposium

All these discussions, readings and revelations occurred within the framework of the Symposium itself. I felt incredibly lucky to be there, among such prestigious guests, and even more so in the company of the other competition 'Fellows', all of whom were both hugely talented artists and generous, wonderful people. For three days we were intellectually challenged, and also absolutely spoilt by ridiculous multi-course-dinners, ridiculously nice wines, ridiculously inventive cocktails, and a ridiculously beautiful location with lake water so ridiculously clean you could swim in it and drink it at the same time (I did, it was amazing).

During one of the panels, a speaker mentioned theouroboros- the ancient Egyptian symbol of the snake eating its own tail. The more I think about it, the more the Symposium feels like it can be described using this symbol. It comes from the most noble of intentions, and everyone there seemed genuinely open to listening to each other, discussing opinions rather than judging them, and creating a strange, mini-utopia of artistic and political ideas. However, though it may have escaped the political echo chamber that the arts are often accused of wallowing in, it didn't escape the chamber of its own privilege - that of wealth, and success, and the ability of some individuals to discuss issues which will not ultimately affect them, either in their careers, or their personal lives. If there was one thing I felt personally at the Symposium, it was that being 'left-wing' or 'right-wing' didn't dictate how nice people were, or how willing they were to engage with people early in their career. It didn't dictate individual kindness.

When I left on the final day - dragging myself out of the hot pool by the lake - I was extremely conflicted. We'd heard from a new company manufacturing a vegan egg substitute (discussing human identity in relation to meat consumption and environmental awareness) and then sat down to a six-course dinner of caviar and reindeer served by a chef brought in specially from Helsinki. We'd talked seriously about the climate crisis, and the next morning the organisers of the event had flown home on a private jet. Here were people talking about how they were "tired" of identity politics, "tired" of left/right wing labels, and how, surely, organic farm-reared eggs were more nutritional than a manufactured vegan substitute. It was an absolute, unrecognised privilege to be able to make these statements, and one that made me feel deeply uncomfortable.

Throughout the event, we had discussed identity politics and the need for diversity of voices - yet that itself was undercut by the individual actions of some in attendance. At various points I saw less established attendees being interrupted, cut-off and ignored; often by the people from whom I'd have least expected this behaviour. I realised I had begun to question the validity of my own opinions, my own worth, the deservedness of my voice to be heard in that room. At some points, I felt I was there to tick a box, to 'be a diverse voice' - even that some of the most vulnerable voices in the room were being expected to provide the elite with a service, "opening their minds" at the expense of our own feelings of safety and stability. I spoke about this with a few others, and I was grateful to know it wasn't my own paranoia (or "close-mindedness", or "unwillingness to listen") that had created this feeling. This is an element of the Symposium that I think it's important to address.

In many ways, the Symposium was a magical, deeply provocative few days. I could go on for hours and/or pages about everything I experienced; the moments of magic, the bridges of understanding, the more challenging aspects of the event… but for now, I'll finish with one final anecdote. I was on the plane home from Oslo, and we were delayed for two hours. I was in the middle seat, and to my left was a man in his forties with a shaved head, tattoos, and a friendly smile. He asked me why I was flying, and I told him about the Symposium. I mentioned the talk about Jordan Peterson.

"Oh, I quite like him actually," he said. "He makes a lot of sense about pretty much everything."

At this point, usually, I might have smiled politely, closed the conversation and put my headphones on. But that day I was exhausted, I was confused, and I was ready to talk to anyone about anything.

The man - Kenny - believed strongly in equality. He believed that anyone who discriminated on the bases of race, of gender, of sexuality, was an idiot. He also felt alienated by a discourse which he felt jumped upon anyone who disagreed and attacked them. He felt that his role in life was being taken away from him, and he didn't know how to deal with it. He thought that women had much more power than we acknowledged ("women have always pulled the strings, they've been behind everything in history, men are just the figureheads, we know our place.")

We ended up talking for about three hours. I was struck with how little Kenny felt that I'd actually listen to him. He was constantly apologising, saying he was monologuing, saying that I'd probably hate him for saying what he thought. I didn't. I thought he was wrong about a lot of stuff, but he made me understand, at least, why he might think that way. At the end of it, we said goodbye, thanked each other, and got off the plane. During the conversation, there were many things upon which we disagreed - but neither of us got angry. Suddenly, it wasn't about winning an argument on Twitter, or in a comments section, or in a theatre bar. It was about listening - genuinely listening - and trying to understand. He made me think about issues from a different perspective. I hope that I did the same for him. I think maybe it's those small, gentle conversations, whether they are between two individuals, or between an actor and an audience of thousands, that are equally as important as shouting from the rooftops. I didn't have many of those moments during the Symposium - but if I hadn't just experienced those three days, I don't think I'd have been willing to have the conversation with Kenny, either.

To be honest, I'm still a bit overwhelmed. I'm not sure what I've taken away from the whole experience. A more open mind, maybe. A sobering realisation about levels of privilege I couldn't have even imagined. A determination to be a little bit more willing to listen. I know one thing for certain, though. If you are a future competition winner debating whether to attend or not, and you've come across this through the dearth of other information about the Symposium online - please, if you can, go. It is a challenging, almost indescribable experience, but more importantly, your voice is incredibly valuable, and it is needed.

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Written by Zoe Bullock at 00:00

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