It’s October 2018, an extreme right-winger called Jair Bolsonaro has just been elected President of Brazil with the help of a massive co-ordinated campaign on the Facebook-owned messaging site Whats App, and at his base in London the writer, thinker, curator and futurist William Galinsky is full of a sense of urgency. “People say that we’re living through something like the 1930s,” he says, “and of course there are parallels there. But fundamentally, I think this is more like the early 19th century – the moment when people realised that the huge technological disruption of the industrial revolution was literally going to change everything; communications, society, the way we do politics, everything.”
Galinsky has been working on ideas about the arts and the future ever since he first became a festival director at Cork Midsummer Festival more than a decade ago, and later at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which he ran for seven years from 2010. When he met the National Theatre of Scotland’s artistic director Jackie Wylie and executive director Brenna Hobson during last year’s Manchester International Festival, ideas began to flow fast and furiously, as they reflected on the growing impact of social media and the internet on our political lives, on the positive as well as the negative aspects of that change, and on what artists can do to respond in creative ways to this “great disruption” in the ways we mediate and distribute ideas, thoughts and images.
The result is next week’s five-day Citizen Of Nowhere event in Dundee, which takes its title from Theresa May’s famous comment that people who think they are citizens of the world are really “citizens of nowhere.” It will see the National Theatre of Scotland work with international experts and local institutions including Dundee’s NEoN digital arts festival, the new V&A Museum and Abertay University to bring a group of major Scottish theatre artists, ranging from directors Stewart Laing, Angus Farquhar and Graham Eatough to writers Adura Onashile and Lewis Hetherington, face to face with the latest developments in virtual reality and communications technology, and to invite them to brainstorm new ideas for future work on the basis of an intense two-day “Collider” session.
The Citizen of Nowhere festival will also have public elements, including a Saturday morning panel discussion bringing together artists and experts; and Galinsky has also programmed a series of events and experiences featuring some of the leading artists in the field of interaction with the digital world, including the British premier of Hello Hi There by New York artist Annie Dorsen, in which she explores what a dialogue between two computers can achieve, using the framework of a famous 1970s debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky. There will also be two shows – one outdoor, one indoor – from British virtual reality specialists Brendan Walker and Limina Immersive, a chance to experience Unknown Cloud by Swedish artists Lundahl and Seitl (exploring values like participation, trust and compassion in a virtual context), a Truth To Power Cafe at the V&A, and a jury-based show called The Justice System, staged at Dundee Sheriff Court.
“For me, it is absolutely not about forgetting what is precious and distinctive about theatre,” says Jackie Wylie, “which is that it brings living, breathing human beings together in the same space, at the same time. Yet both William and I share the feeling that artists absolutely have to engage with the ways that our world is being changed by technology, and start to get on the front foot about how we make sure that change doesn’t just devastate and exploit us; and I hope this event will act as a catalyst for a leading group of Scottish theatre artists to develop new ideas and projects around the massive change we’re living through.”
Both Galinsky and Wylie, in other words, are inspired by the idea, as old as ancient Greece, of theatre as a civic space, in which a community can gather to reflect the crises it is experiencing, and – perhaps – to find a more human and humane way through those moments of disruption.
“Living through the EU referendum, the election of Donald Trump and various political developments since then,” says Galinsky, “it does suddenly seem as though our whole model of how elections are lost and won has just imploded over the last couple of years. It’s something we’ve been sleepwalking towards, in a way, through those early years of social networks when we imagined that their impacts would be mainly gentle and benign, enabling people to become more connected; but now it just seems urgent to begin to question the kind of uber-libertarian Silicon Valley attitudes that have been driving these developments, and to ask what artists and civil society can do to influence the direction in which we’re going. There are amazing creative and positive possibilities in this new world, with kids in the poorest places in the world now able – for instance – to make music on their smartphones and upload it straight to the internet; but the question is how we start to intervene in these processes, and re-balance their impacts on all of our lives.
Wylie agrees. “In the past, we’ve talked in the abstract about culture and civil society,” she says, “and about the relationship between the two. But now, the speed of technological change is altering our society and the way it works in really unprecedented ways. I have the feeling that we in the arts really need to get organised, and to start making work that not only addresses these changes, but also stakes a claim to be part of the public conversation about this new world we’re entering, and how it evolves.” - Joyce McMillan
Citizen Of Nowhere is at venues across Dundee from 7-11 November, www.nationaltheatrescotland.com