It’s not, I accept, a hugely novel observation, but the ability afforded by digital technologies to take local work and make it international is vital right now, and one of the most interesting opportunities available to artists and institutions, outside of considerations of artistic form.
Global discourse creates opportunities
What we see all across the world is that what you think of like a national conversation, not to mention national identity, is more and more disparate, and that shared language is more and more fractured in countries all over the world, whether it’s in this country, America or wherever else; and in a way, it’s this fractured nature of the global discourse that creates opportunities for work to find an international audience. The most globally popular work in 2019, or at least that which seems to create the greatest degree of international discourse, across art, music, theatre, opera, is that which jumps out and captures the imagination and which often uses distinctly local perspectives to try and address universal issues.
Take, for instance, Phil Collins’ work, which takes as its inspiration Engels’ two-decades in Manchester and uses those to make really deep and political points about identities being re-drawn, the heritage of Manchester, the changing nature of urban narratives and who defines them, all wrapped up in quite a playful thing about the regeneration of urban spaces and the socio-political effects thereof. It’s a deeply local work, drawing on specific instances of Mancunian history, and yet the themes is deals with are ones resonant with residents of any major urban centre in the world.
The past few decades has seen the UK becoming an increasingly international country; it has also seen the nature of urban existence change significantly, to the point where one could argue that a place like Bradford has more in common on certain levels with cities in other countries than it does with London - which also means that work can attain international cut-through.
There’s a degree to which the granularity of a very locally-focused work can, oddly make it completely universal - because these granular human experiences are universal. We all have these very granular, localised experiences, but the fact that we all have them makes them everyone’s in a strange way. And the web enhances our ability both as creators and audiences to appreciate, explore and exploit this - and to discover commonality of thought and experience across international boundaries, and use the web’s network effect to leverage this for audience development.
The web allows us to explore global conversations
For me, there is a deep artistic and cultural conservatism in the way that art is curated within this country, and that, I think, comes from the model of cultural curation, distribution and adoption fostered in the post-War era - an idea that the one thing we do is preserve a tradition, a canon and a collection of objects or forms of work that we look after. What the web affords us is the ability to look beyond this ‘small ‘c’ conservative’ view of our work and its place within the wider culture and instead begin to explore its resonance with broader global conversations and themes; and in the very best cases, to begin to establish a working dialogue with the wider world about what the work means and what it is for - which is how the best digital interaction, and art works.
Think about theatre - for a certain type of urban theatregoer, for the past few years now the ‘best’ work - or certainly that which garners the most attention - is that where the audience has to do something very active, where we play with expectation and imagination to try and make our audience implicit or complicit in the work that we’re creating - we establish a dialogue with the audience. Digital affords all artists and institutions the opportunity to do this, across form and media, across barriers of language and geography; sadly, although this has been the case for over a decade now, it’s fair to say that appreciation of this fact is less universal than one might hope.
Know your audiences
Reaching international audiences - and doing so meaningfully - isn’t about simply broadcasting something in the hope that hundreds of thousands of interested people will magically find you. As with anything, it’s about knowing what is interesting about your work, which audiences it might appeal to, what themes might resonate, where these people are, and how to talk to them.
More than anything, though, it’s about understanding that a parochial mindset is limiting and unnecessary. Whatever the work - whether it’s about the radicalisation of young men in the North West of England taking place online, the struggle for recognition of a transman in Kuala Lumpur, or an amateur women’s handball team in Lima - there will be qualities and themes it addresses which can and will resonate outside of a local, domestic, physical audience (and, if there aren’t, one might argue there are fundamental issues with the work itself).
There will be conversations happening about these themes online, in which voices from across the world join in discussion and debate – it’s our responsibility as makers of work, engaged in a global discourse of ideas, to demonstrate our interest and get involved with the ecosystem; In my experience, when you do this you will find the ecosystem cares a lot more about you when you have something to put out there.
Makers and institutions have an unprecedented opportunity to expand the reach of their work and the discourse around it, to reach new audiences outside traditional boundaries of geography and interest - but it requires effort and understanding, time if not money (if you believe one can ever separate the two concepts…).
The nature of work is simultaneously and intrinsically both local and global, per se. We as artists have a need - perhaps even a duty - to get involved with communities of interest and to make our work in such a manner that it can flow as freely as possible, regardless of boundaries of geography or language. We have the opportunity to create work that exists free of the space in which it is exhibited or performed, to allow our ideas to travel across previously impermeable borders - it simply requires us to think beyond traditionally prescribed boundaries and, perhaps, to do more listening and less broadcasting if we want the world to listen.
Javaad Alipoor is an artist, director, writer and activist who regularly makes theatre with and for communities that don’t usually engage in the arts. He is a Scotsman Fringe First and Columbia University Digital Storytelling Award winner. His play, The Believers Are But Brothers, was performed at London’s Bush Theatre before its world tour and adaptation for BBC Four, commissioned by The Space. Last year, Alipoor directed the stage adaptation of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest for Sheffield Theatres, to mark the end of his three-year tenure as Associate Director at The Crucible Theatre.