Power verses force. What do you have the power to do? Are there areas where you don’t need to force but rather you can go with the flow? We need in this world a place where you can experiment, risk and ask questions. As a freelance dance artist, I have been battered by the winds of dance, but it hasn’t detoured me from following what I am most passionate to do, despite the obstacles which are many! I think we don’t have enough curiosity in this world. What I know I can give as an artist ~is to evoke curiosity, connection, wonder and questioning in others. The spirit of inquiry is something that is not honored in our society today. We only follow linear growth on a clear path, supposedly know where we are going and what we are getting before we get it –as it has already been codified and commodified for us. Art is the antidote to this. An expansive idea, that anything is possible. Risk whenever possible, the world is always changing and we are in a constant state of motion! If a flat lifeline means we are dead~ real life can only exist with highs and lows. In Culturistan, our group experienced these same peaks and summits. anticipation and curiosity. Success is not linear- our world is always changing as are we. The organs in our body that work the hardest have the fastest changeover. We grow a whole new skin every 2-4 weeks. Our red blood cells last less than ½ a year. We are always changing yet we hold on tightly to remain the same. To settle for the security of the familiar or known. The ups and downs are inevitable, but we can make efforts to change. the way we see, speak and hear them. How might we place greater focus on our shared humanity rather than the differences that separate us? In a world of individualist outlooks is there also room for empathy, community orientation, and interculturalism? “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth”– Shirley Chisholm Culturistan has come to an end. I sincerely thank Ahmad and Taha for their vision in creating and bringing this unique residency to fruition and to my fellow Culturistanies. The future of the connections forged here are yet to be revealed but I am optimistic to see how our intentions will take root. I am all the richer for meeting these 9 individuals more personally over these last 10 days, until we meet again!
It’s the last day of the residency. The previous night, each of us had, in our own ways, reached out and made gestures, verbal and physical, to continue to restore harmony. And we accepted the gestures, understood them for what they were, and reciprocated. We were creating space for kindness, if not forgiveness. And late into the evening, we had lingered in collective company, conscious this was our last night at the residency. This morning, rather unwillingly, we mull over the conflict and anger from the previous day. It’s one thing to read about how people ‘lean into’ the difficulties and challenges they face and be inspired by their courage to do so from afar. It’s quite another to see it happen in front of you and learn whether you have the stomach to follow. This is not about being thin- or thick-skinned. It’s about consciously dealing with pain head-on. In revisiting examples of conflict, disagreement, displeasure, discontent, and/or misrepresentation among us, the underlying question was simple: How could/should we act in these circumstances? In our own way, we became the subjects of our own ‘breaching experiment’, a sociological concept referenced in the reading we never made it to from the previous day, namely, ‘Human After All: Auto-tune, Technology, and Human Creativity’ by Ed Ledsham. A breaching experiment is ‘where a social rule (such as queuing) is broken (queue-jumping), provoking a reaction from the subject. After the rule is broken it is possible to study the breach, identify the unspoken assumptions and then consider them.’ We turn, eventually, to the analogy of wounds and healing. That whereas some of us are inclined to rip off the plaster, others are more mindful of the need to let it heal before exposing to air again, or allowing the scab to be picked at. How we say and mean things are not always heard and received in the spirit we intend. The greater the trust and faith we have worked to create, the more expansive we are to the idea that we all mean well. And so the analogy developed to make clearer that the intention was not to hurt further, but to ensure that the piercing thorn was indeed removed so as not to fester unnoticed. Again, intention and reception. Harking back to the previous day’s observations on the need for building consensus around the rules of engagement, what we wanted, and how we could get there, we agree that our primary expectations for this last day, are ‘to end on a high note.’ We recognise that we have come away changed in many different ways. For many of us, Culturistan was not merely the readings, or authenticity, or the food or…
When presented with a thought or idea that challenges or even changes what we hold to be true, no matter how well we listen, if it doesn’t affect what we say or what we do, what does it matter? Ultimately you have to own what you say, not what you hear. What we hear can’t be recorded, only what we say. So for how important listening is, it means nothing unless it affects what you say and does with what you now know to be true. The first of our last two readings of Culturistan titled “What Will You Do?” by Rainer Maria Rilke, addressed this in the context of what will we be remembered by when we’re gone. Will we be remembered solely by what we’ve said or by what we’ve done? In terms of authenticity, in my case I certainly hope for the latter. I’ve strove for a level authenticity in my work throughout my life. Even if it isn’t something tangible, I know my intention was such. The last reading of this journey was titled “I Stopped to Listen” by Leonard Cohen. I had quite an emotional reaction to this not so much because of its content but that it was the end of our Culturistan experience. I was in tears as I was asked to read it aloud, thinking less about what I was reading and more about to whom I was reading it. Each of my fellow residents has affected me deeply, in some ways known and some which have yet to be revealed. It does indeed feel like a dream. We all agreed that it will take some time to process and see how we will be affected in the long term. I’m sure some of us will be more affected than others, but at the very least I feel a very deep sense of kinship with everyone who was here. In that sense, for me, Culturistan was a success. To my fellow residents Gelareh, Iason, Yasmeen, Estephania, Tara, and Fayaz I thank you all for showing up. The connection I feel with you all is as authentic as can be. And to Ahmad and Taha… thank you for bringing us together at such a beautiful location and giving us all the chance to contemplate and hopefully evolve all the ways we approach what we do. It was an honor to be part of the inaugural class of Culturistan I.
I missed check out, as I had to leave the day before to catch my flight back to San Francisco, but our WhatsApp group chat is still going strong, and I’m excited to see how our paths will cross – either intentionally, or by accident and what we can come up with together. I feel like I walked away from the last 10 days with a new layer to my social perspective, and feel very much enriched and expanded as a result.
Checking out… I am the fisherman of a storyThat has no tourist and no fish I walk away today with much. The word gratitude has been redefined for me, leaving me a sense of worth and value. That human value, that at times can be lost amongst the noise of life, amongst the quick disrespects that pass by where we think it’s ok to ignore. We had our last 2 readings, read with our heavy voices knowing these our last words together. We began our course with poetry and now ending with 2 poems, speaking to us again of the importance of true listening, yet not forgetting that speech is as powerful. The air felt thick on one of the hottest days in France, as the breeze secretly passed through one window and out the other, comforting our goodbyes. When will I experience this all again ? The coming together as to read and discuss. We don’t seem to do that enough back in the “real world”. Sharing ideas on literature, articles and poems combined. I wish we did this more, over natural flavours of food embedded amongst our natural land. To listen and to speak for the value of just listening and speaking with no intentions or bigger goals. We were stripped these past 10days of any external influences, and how quickly we felt the urge on some days to bring old needs back. In our conversations we spoke of Well-being, of goals without being fully selfish, the respect of cultures, yet sometimes the hardest task was to show up on time. The equal power of silence and words. “When I go, your cold house will be Empty of words that made it sweet. I am the sandals your bare feet Will seek long for, wearily. … “– Rainer Maria Rilke I have not yet fully absorbed the depth of all that has been experienced. In my opinion these past 10 days were rare. Atleast in all my 3 decades I have rarely been given so much purity all at once from pure silence to the orchestra of uncaged birds, to the natural raw fields that hadn’t been forced to grow, to the homemade flavours eaten among diverse laughters that had no guards or anything to prove, to being expressive without the need of popularity or social media likes. We connected across 35 Readings, 9 nationalities, 9 souls, 9 minds, 3 generations, 10 days in 1 historical castle with a speed that eliminated stress, materialistic attachment and elongated time. As we drove away, watching the blended colours of Green and yellow, I remembered the Zagros journey, it’s variable speeds each bringing forth its own set of thoughts. How speed…
New roads I arrived without any expectation of what I would find in these 10 days. I learned so much from myself and I made the most amazing inside journey. I met incredible people and I feel that we have established a connection of absolute love and mutual acceptance of who we are. My feeling today is: FREEDOM Freedom to be who we are without having to wear any masks.Freedom to hear and talkFreedom to feelFreedom to beFreedom to doFreedom to rediscoverFreedom to shareFreedom to changeFreedom to breatheFreedom to have timeFreedom to have space 10 days ago I thought that authenticity is the inner truth and today I have the complete certainty that it is so. My act of pure authenticity was to re-operate this house, to give life to what is inside and outside it, to see it with transparency and to let it express without any expectation other than that of the BEING. This is my inner truth. My authenticity. “I stay home today and won´t open my door to anyone but my mind´s door is wide openThey come and go as they please disagreeable Friends, incompatible acquaintances”– Abbas Kiarostami
Our last night at Culturistan~ I am left with a feeling of melancholy for a variety of reasons. We discussed ways in which this 10-day residency worked, ways it didn’t work, suggestions for improvement and development for the next class of Culturistanis to come for Class II. A range of emotions and thoughts rose to the surface in our reading discussion today. I will need to reflect and digest this unique experience with Ahmad, Taha, Epi, Greg, Gelareh, Iason, Fayaz and Yasmeen in this unique, circuitous and unconventional residency experience. A quote by Anais Nin comes to mind as our day comes to a close: “I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as a reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me. Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn’t impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.”
Things broke down today. Having led residentials and pilgrimages in the past, I had expected it. But half-way through, not on the penultimate day. Hitting the wall was almost inevitable — here we were, nine of us, miraculously carving out 10 days sandwiched between dizzying travel and professional and personal commitments, thrown together — willingly, even if uncertainly — in a remarkable intellectual, artistic, and geographical space. Despite our relative isolation, the outside world had, to paraphrase Denise Vargas’s ‘Shadow’, manifested its ‘presence in absence’ and in all its complexity for many of us. And the residency is neither a picnic nor a holiday. It was always going to be a place for hard thinking — about the work we do, why we do it, and perhaps most importantly, how we do it and how we bring ourselves fully to it, with all our passions and skills and experiences and biases conscious and unconscious. ‘If—‘, by Rudyard Kipling, the first and only reading we could tackle today, was thus a poem of particular relevance for all of us, even if it didn’t entirely resonate for some of us. Our discussions revolved first around being ‘a Man, my son’, and whether this could speak equally to ‘a Woman, my daughter’, or even more broadly, ‘to a Human, my child’. They then moved on to the poem making a virtue of individualism over the value of the collective or the community or society. Determined self-belief is often necessary in the face of communal doubt, but where do we draw the line? For what? Empire, entrepreneurship, AI? And when? And whom can we trust to tell us? And when they do, what is most effective? Being blunt or being kind? All of these issues rapidly came to the fore. I was reminded of Chinua Achebe’s masterful novel Things Fall Apart, whose title explicitly references W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming’: ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.’ Had we brought out the best in each other, and perhaps, the worst in ourselves? How can we hope to effectuate change if we are unable to be civil at a table? How do we move forward? How do we build? There were lessons in the readings, perhaps, that we needed to return to. The extract from Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, which we had discussed earlier in the week, could be one example. A man’s denial of torture and rape against a woman in detention…
On day 9 of Culturistan, we started off the day attempting to dive into the readings but took a left turn because some of the group felt that the readings and the discussions didn’t incorporate the larger narrative of culture and were generally narrow categorically, so we instead decided to discuss the failings of the readings and their lack of representation of major themes outside of a “Tech/Silicon Valley utopia”. As a result, many of us decided to share our reflections about the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of the material we’ve discussed thus far, and our individual reactions to the week and how that has shaped our collective experience. Initially we shared our reflections of the process and the guidelines that were created for the week and whether we believe it worked or not. I cited a Google study about what makes teams most efficient and productive and it was the teams that felt the safest. I have generally felt that we collectively lose so many chapters of the narrative when even one person in a group feels unsafe or left out and decides to refrain from sharing their thoughts. When a person feels psychologically safe enough to share their true opinions, then their ideas become expressed rather than contained. And with that expression, the group is able to respond, internalize and debate these ideas, which is generative for the collective. Further, I believe one major attribute of creating a safe environment is to approach group discussions with integrity. There were definitely times in which I felt that there lacked a level of discernment on the part of the moderator and others when it came to the discussions. At times, the conversations felt more like ad hominem “personal” attacks between people vs a reflection on the content of what a person was saying – which in my opinion – was a major failing of the discussions throughout the week. In the spirit of creating a safe space for people to share feelings, opinions about someone’s personal life pulled into the discussions felt like we had missed the point entirely of what we were trying to achieve. But in the end, I wouldn’t have changed the week because it was, for lack of a better word, authentic. It was a representation of what could go both very wrong and very right when you bring together a group of diverse artists with very strong opinions under one roof. We later had our graduation ceremony outside in a beautiful garden. The beauty of the Culturistan group is that it never felt cliquey and we moved as a collective unit rather than separate subgroups.
The ability to communicate Photo by Iason Athanasiadis We share the same reality but different truths. As a fundamental part of the growth of this house, it is necessary to share a dialogue that is nurtured through hearing and speaking. Each one shares his truth through these two instruments and precisely because of this it is so important to express ourselves with the correct words and to have the ability to hear. Dialogue opens up a world of possibilities, differences, and opinions that come from the personal history of each one and from their way of living and experiencing the world. Different opinions show me other ways that I can decide to take or not to take, but the important thing is to know the infinite number of possibilities and paths that are available to each of us. In our conversations we understand that there is nothing black and white but there is a very interesting palette of colors. As Ahmad Kiarostami quoted one of his friends, “Opinions change facts more than facts change opinions.”