The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
As the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) celebrates its 60th anniversary, what is the vision of its new artistic director?
Ekow Eshun
You are also a journalist and broadcaster. From this point of view, how do you think the arts influence the society, or people’s way of thinking in Britain?
That’s a good question – there was a piece in the Japan Times yesterday about how London is overtaking New York as the world’s major city of international commerce and culture. It talked about economy, how the stock market is booming and trade industry is prospering, but also about how culture plays an important role in the rise of London. That’s true. I think London is in the middle of the whole artistic boom at the moment, led really by the opening of the Tate Modern in 2000. Since then, every art institution is in competition to get the most people and to do the most exciting work. So, the game is bigger, the bar is higher now, and it is really exciting. There are all sorts of different activities taking place, which means that now the public is much more aware of what art means. Also, there is great hunger for culture in general. So, London is insane, all the cinemas, theatres and art galleries are doing different things and competing with each other to get attention. It’s hard work if you work in the arts, but I think this is very healthy and it’s the most exciting area to be in at the moment.
As a journalist I’ve spent all my life writing about all this. I write about arts, politics, culture, identity, fashion sometimes, but I don’t think much about a distinction between them. For me they tend to roll into one. It’s because they are all about how you live. I am always interested in what it is to motivate, or move people. I think culture is made up of all sorts of individual events and moments, and there is a collective voice that comes out of all these. I try to listen to and identify that, as it tells you a lot about what Britain is like as a country and how it sits in the wider international world at the moment.
So, it really interests me coming to Japan like this, as I am always trying to find where the next wave comes from and identify what that wave is. On a personal level, too, I started out my early career writing about trends and lifestyle. I was an editor for a fashion/style magazine called Arena, and even then, it felt to me that you could take them seriously. Fashion is not just about clothes. Fashion is about the reasons why people do certain things.

It seems to me, though, that while arts can contribute to a city being an exciting place, people in the world are somehow feeling pessimistic about the future and the direction we are going. Do you think arts can help people to find a way?
Art doesn’t have answers to things. What art can do is to question about things and allow people hopefully to see things in different ways.
The amount of time spent in the world talking about religion at the moment is huge. I would rather put my faith in art as an answer to the questions in the world, because I think artistic activity – whether it is in visual arts or film or whatever – can hold on to contradiction. Religion for instance is interested in a single answer to things. Art is about the complexity of the world. That’s not so comfortable a lot of times for people. But for me it’s crucial to accept the fact that the world is this complicated. And, while you can be pessimistic, actually the idea that we can explore the significance of the things around us and spend time thinking and talking about it, I think that can lead to new waves for making the world better.
The point of art is that when someone creates an amazing piece of art that people have never seen before, that can make people feel uncomfortable, but that’s good, I guess, because it suggests that someone has found a different perspective. I am not always looking for the stuff that is going to please most people, but something that has depth and enough weight to it that we can come back to again and again.

Do you have any special events to celebrate your 60th anniversary?
We are in the process of planning now. Our 60th year won’t start properly start until late this year – and about our highlight, which we are excited about, I can’t talk about it yet, because we still need to fully confirm it. But assuming it happens, that will be a major public event in our main space involving music and art. So we will not stop with our events about innovation and complexity, but over the next couple of years it will be important for us to bring in a large number of people who wouldn’t have come to experimental forms of art until now. That is our challenge, but I think I have a strong idea about that.

Which areas would you like to emphasize from now on?
I think a lot about visual art, cinema, and music – trying to identify what the area means, to think not only about the audience but which is culturally ascendant now. I think visual art is enormously important in British culture at the moment. Performing arts also, especially live music, Britain is in the middle of a huge boom. So we should spend a lot of time on bringing in all these, what we think relevant. The feature about ICA is that it doesn’t have a permanent collection - we are not a museum - we don’t hold on to things. It means that the place has to be adaptable all the time. We are flexible, so we can say that now we should do more of this and less of that. ICA itself is alive, an organic institution. So I say to the staff that we should be led by our passions, and serve what we think is important, and that’s how we move our way forward.

As a writer you published the book Black Gold of the Sun. How is your personal experience reflected in this work?
I think my book is all about what it feels like ‘not to belong’ really, or to belong to more than one place at the same time, having home in either place, in this case Britain and Africa. And it’s about how to approach life in childhood and as an adult – it was to do things as a stranger, like an outsider. It’s difficult to do so as a child. But as an adult, I’ve always though it important to take nothing for granted. In cultural terms, trying to look at things afresh and new. I was born in Britain but not English, in as much as I was not ‘white’ English. And I have been aware of the unfairness and discrimination that still exists in British society. But that made me more attuned to some of the nuances of the society or culture, to the fact that although people say one thing, they do another thing. But maybe artistically and culturally you can explore that territory. That’s why I say that uncomfortable things are OK. The fact that the society is unfair and discriminatory and so on – that’s what it is. After that it’s down to you how you respond to that. The biggest thing that motivates me is trying to have a voice in the society, not to be discriminated against, to make sure that I am allowed to articulate what I think is important. So at various times in my life, in childhood, I wasn’t very happy, but again you can use that experience. In the end it can be strength, because you accept nothing as a given, and always try to look at things in a new way.


Black Gold of the Sun – Searching for Home in England and Africa
Penguin Books, 2006
This semi-autobiographical book about cross-cultural issues is based on author Ekow Eshun’s experiences being born in London and spending part of his childhood in Ghana and then returning to Ghana as an adult. It deals with the eternal questions of belonging.

Do you think that contemporary art can give vision with regards to various problems of the society, and a means to express them? About young people in Britain specifically, what is their biggest issue and how would ICA respond to it?
Britain as a country is in an interesting phase at the moment that is uncomfortable. Socially, there is a lot of concern, people are talking about violence, worrying that young people are out of control, the fabric of the society is not so stable. Also, since the bombing in London in 2005, there has been a worry that different cultures in our society are fragmented. So, there is some strong sense of fear in a number of different ways. What we do at ICA is to give voice to that disquiet.
Two things have sprung to my mind. One is that at one of the night clubs that we have, we hold a night called ‘Dirty Canvas’, which is a ‘grime’ night. Grime is a form of urban music created by young black kids. And most venues in Britain, most clubs in London can’t put on grime nights because there is a reputation of violence. When you try to put on a grime night the police would call you up and say, “Should you really be doing this?” They don’t think it’s a good idea. So, since I arrived we’ve run grime nights. The police still called us, but we are doing it. And you know what? It has been very successful. It’s sold out every time, and there is no violence. We have lots of black kids and white kids. It’s a small event, but I think it runs counter to some of the fear that this has a reputation of danger. I think it is important to use the public space to say this is culture, too. This, too, is part of how British society is changing in new waves of music and attraction.
I guess the other example is some of the things to do with Iraq. Like everywhere else in the world we hear all this talk about ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and so on and so forth. But in fact, people are people. There have been all sorts of debates in Britain about the influence of Islam and Christianity. For me it is important to use ICA as a space to explore those issues. Some people get angry sometimes in such a debate, but that’s OK. I think the virtue of being a public space is that you are neutral, and use that neutrality to explore difficult issues.
But what we focus on is creativity and showing what is historically important. It’s not that there is a problem of young people so we have to do this. We take those criteria away. We have in fact for our audience a larger percentage of people than other art institutions who come from different minority cultures, but that’s not because we deliberately target them. It is a result of being as open as possible in identifying potential sources of new work.
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