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In November 2021, I was invited to participate in a lab as a concluding step in the conception phase for a future Tanzvermittlungszentrum in Berlin. I was asked to attend the lab, provide a critical response at the end of it, and to archive the content and experience of the lab in a text.1
My critical response and this text are informed by my role as member of the advisory board, the so-called ‘extended team’, which supported and advised the work of the steering group between 2021 and 2022, focusing on questions of accessibility, diversity, power-sharing and leadership models.
Time, access and solidarity are three keywords that neatly recap or synthesise what was discussed and highlighted during the lab. These three keywords also provide a concise reflection of the conception phase for a future Tanzvermittlungszentrum in Berlin, including its achievements and failures.
For this reason, I have taken these three keywords as guiding principles, in order to map out the ethics and working cultures of the future institution and the 2022 pilot phase Access Point Tanz. To do this, I interweave the three keywords with concepts borrowed from an article that has been central to my advisory work in the conception phase with the steering group.2 The article is called “White Supremacy Culture”, and is part of the body of work Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun (2001)3. Jones and Okun describe a set of characteristics of what they call “white supremacy culture”. The most impressive aspect of this article, which is based on years of anti-racism work in the USA, is that it offers so called “antidotes” to the “characteristics” of white supremacy culture. These antidotes seek to deliver practical solutions that can be applied and become inscribed in the working cultures of cultural organizations and institutions, in order to liberate them from the toxic habits of a white supremacy culture.
The characteristics that the authors list as the foundations of white supremacy culture are: perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress is bigger and more, objectivity, the right to comfort (Jones and Okun 2001).
I find that these characteristics outlined by the authors speak for themselves, and in fact, they really do not need further explanation. I would go so far as to assert that anyone who works for a cultural organisation or art institution would certainly recognise at least a few of these dynamics. Whether we’d like to admit it or not!
In the following, the characteristics and antidotes identified by Jones and Okun help to reveal the centrality of time, access and solidarity in creating healthy working cultures and for the quest to leave white supremacy behind.
During the lab, the wish for a constructive, non-toxic culture of time management was expressed in various different ways: time for self-care, time to find out how team members want to work together, time for long-term strategies, time to reflect and deal with conflict openly, time for critical self-reflection processes, time for evaluation.
Interestingly, all these wishes about time also mirror the kind of time that was lacking during the conception phase, which took place under pressure because of bureaucratic structures of time management. Despite the time pressure generated by this culture of urgency, the steering group and the advisory board invested time and energy into establishing accessibility as a foundation for the future Tanzvermittlungszentrum, as well as healthy working cultures, and a critical culture of self-reflection. Paradoxically, this investment of time and energy, led to an unhealthy culture of overworking and burn-out for some people.
The authors of “White Supremacy Culture” bring up what they call a “sense of urgency” as a characteristic of white supremacist culture, and they help to explain how this works:
- continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long-term, to consider consequences
- frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results, for example sacrificing interests of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community)
- reinforced by funding proposals which promise too much work for too little money and by funders who expect too much for too little (Jones & Okun 2001)
The antidotes to the spread of an invasive “sense of urgency” and its consequences provide a perspective that includes time and access. The proposed antidotes to sense of urgency are:
Realistic work plans; leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects; discuss and plan for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time; learn from past experience how long things take; write realistic funding proposals with realistic time frames; be clear about how you will make good decisions in an atmosphere of urgency (Jones & Okun 2001)
Time and access are clearly intertwined. A culture of time born out of a “sense of urgency” blocks processes of access, as Jones and Okun clearly describe. Therefore, the dismantling of this kind of time culture is a precondition to approaching processes of accessibility and to fostering critical diversity.
Access was discussed by the groups at the lab as something that travels from inside to outside (outreach) and from outside to inside (in-reach), characterised by a movement which recalls a moebius strip. Processes of marginalisation were central to the discussion. Issues of internal and external access to the field were discussed, as well as formats of access for communication with funding institutions; and of providing funders and administrators in the field with access to discourses around accessibility.
Of course, cultures of access are complex, and a different time culture is not the only ingredient in providing accessible structures. The analysis of further categories laid out by Jones and Okun are therefore central to tackling this complexity. Lack of accessibility is related to phenomena such as “power hoarding”, “defensiveness” (above all of those in power), and “objectivity”. The first two characteristics speak for themselves, so I would like to take some time to introduce Jones and Okun’s notion of “objectivity”:
- the belief that there is such a thing as being objective
- the belief that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not play a role in decision-making or group process; invalidating people who show emotion
- requiring people to think in a linear fashion and ignoring or invalidating those who think in other way
- impatience with any thinking that does not appear logical to those with power (Jones & Okun 2001)
The definition of “objectivity” as a characteristic of white supremacy cultures offers two aspects which have a particular potential to transform the field of art institutions: on the one hand, the invitation to break taboos on emotions and emotional labour, and on the other hand, the invitation to welcome non-linear thinking.
If initiated in art institutions, both processes would make an immense contribution to the dissolution of (emotional) blockages concerning racist and patriarchal structures, and to transforming the sense of guilt among white people into a political and social sense of responsibility, which would in turn foster accessibility and diversity based on healthy emotional environments.
Dance, movement and the body are amazing instrument for navigating these processes, and it is in fact odd that industry professionals working in dance institutions very rarely seek to tap this potential for engaging in processes to transform working cultures, and combat structural racism and discrimination.
The antidotes that Jones and Okun offer to “objectivity” are:
Realize that everybody has a world view and that everybody’s world view affects the way they understand things; realize this means you too; push yourself to sit with discomfort when people are expressing themselves in ways which are not familiar to you; assume that everybody has a valid point, and your job is to understand what that point is. (Jones & Okun 2001)
Raising consciousness around distorted perceptions of objectivity has the potential not only to create healthy working cultures that are able to welcome mistakes and process conflict, but also to destabilise beliefs about artistic quality and the centrality of the canon.
Solidarity came up in the lab in terms of the (in)capacity to support each other and through an interrogation of existing forms of collaboration, as well as with respect to the fear of losing control and power. How do we cultivate a form of solidarity that is able to infiltrate and pervade deep into the tissue of cultural organisations and institutions and become structural, enabling it to take into consideration the interweaving of different forms of discrimination? In fact, an understanding of several of the characteristics outlined by Okun and Jones along with the antidotes they offer can help us to envision and construct a form of solidarity that can be called structural and intersectional. These characteristics are: “individualism”, “fear of open conflict”, “power hoarding”, and “defensiveness”.
I would like to foreground “power hoarding” here as a characteristic that must be tackled in order to install cultures of solidarity, with the antidotes to power hoarding offering a way out of toxic working cultures. Once again, I would assert that anyone working in art institutions is very familiar with the dynamics of power hoarding.
Okun and Jones define power hoarding as follows:
- little, if any, value around sharing power
- those with power feel threatened when anyone suggests changes in how things should be done in the organization, feel suggestions for change are a reflection on their leadership
- those with power don’t see themselves as hoarding power or as feeling threatened
- those with power assume they have the best interests of the organization at heart and assume those wanting change are ill-informed (stupid), emotional, inexperienced
Reading these points, it becomes clear how necessary it is to raise awareness among those in power if we are to build up cultures of solidarity. In order to achieve a structural and intersectional form of solidarity, art institutions and organisations need to radically rethink the hierarchical model of the “singular white curatorial sovereignty” (Liepsch, Warner and Pees 2018).
The antidotes offered by Okun and Jones are as follows:
include power sharing in your organization’s values statement; discuss what good leadership looks like and make sure people understand that a good leader develops the power and skills of others; understand that change is inevitable and challenges to your leadership can be healthy and productive; make sure the organization is focused on the mission (Jones & Okun 2001)
The task is in fact to slow down in order inhabit leadership differently, to rethink models of leadership and approach leadership as co-learning, as co-caring, as co-moving along non-linear paths. To abandon known forms of leadership is another path towards creating accessible and diverse environments in the arts, since a plural, diverse leadership will be slower and lead us beyond regimes of urgency and toward decision-making processes pervaded by diverse perspectives.
- The concept lab was conceived by the steering group as a concluding dialogical aspect of the concept phase for a future Tanzvermittlungszentrum in Berlin (2020–2021), before formulating the concept paper for the upcoming pilot phase under the name of Access Point Tanz. The lab participants were made up of stakeholders and experts in the field in Berlin. Some of them had previously taken part in the interview.
- A workshop on working cultures with the steering group and the advisory board (based in part on this text) took place in autumn of 2021.
- More information about Jones and Okun’s workbook, the original article (2001) and its developments, as well as for an updated version (2021) can be found here or here. The 2001 version, which I have quoted from here, can be found here.