Johnny Tam

Theatre director, art director of the Macao Experimental Theatre, has been living and working in Shanghai and Berlin. Representative works from these years are Mr. Shi and His Lover and Lungs.

Where does our cultural imagination come from (Part 1)

06 2018 | Issue 27

According to the original plan, this article is supposed to be about commentaries’ impact on cultural development. However, when I was constructing ideas for the article, the highly-anticipated Annual Financial Support for Cultural Activities/Projects, put forward by the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Macao, released the funding result. I believe it makes more sense to write a comment on this trending topic to illustrate the commentary’s influence on the society. 

The heated discussion online tells local art community’ concerns over the future of Macao’s cultural ecosystem. Local artists in Macao are rattled by numerous issues existing in the city’s cultural environment, such as the public’s doubts over the Review on Administrative Regulation regarding the rules on managing theatres, the cancelling of the Black Box Theatre after the old court building being converted into a library, performing art graduates finding it hard to find employment opportunities after returning from overseas studies, and more. So how should artists in Macao drive the local cultural industry? To answer this question, we need to take the overall development of performing arts into consideration. This challenges local policymakers and artists’ cultural imagination and their capacity to strike a balance between the differences of these two parties. Subsidising and funding policies for art vary from region to region. If the local authority’s cultural imagination is very different from that of the local artists, then it will be hard to establish a functioning collaboration dynamic, since the two parties are pursuing different directions and visions. 

In order to develop cultural industry, it is important to find the source of our cultural imagination, to explore the space for growing different art forms in the local market and facilitate internal dialogue. The cultural industry focuses on cultural productivity, outlining that cultural creativity can transform into products with market value. Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei once commented on cultural products’ value in his book Time and Place: “My artworks have their own value regardless of whether people buy them or not. I think it’s absurd because the value is dependent on individuals’ perception.” Market value works in a way that is hard to grasp, and therefore, the idea of judging artworks solely based on their market performance raises concerns among artists. 

I am not a professional researcher on cultural policy, but I often observe the culture in different cities with a curious heart. Speaking from my own experience in performing arts, I will analyse the source of our cultural imagination from three aspects. 

Firstly, we need to look at cultural outlook. When talking about the cultural industry, some would think of commercialised handcrafts, and some would think of films that promote cultural tourism. Cultural outlook is what makes people perceive the cultural industry differently. It’s a mindset forged by years of cultural exposure. People learn from real-life examples and think over the value of a cultural product. It’s an ongoing process that shapes our view of the surrounding environment. We can expand our cultural outlook through continuous observation, or through platforms like this column. In other words, we can learn from authors with different cultural outlooks and get to know the similarities and differences. When we are reading, we are also expanding our outlook and getting inspired, while learning about the cultural progress in different regions. 

Secondly, the history of culture is also where we get our cultural imagination. The difference between having a cultural outlook and knowing the history of culture is whether you know how a cultural phenomenon came into being. For instance, if you are interested in modern theatre, you will easily discover that Germany is an important playground for theatre plays and learn that the best theatre of a certain year is the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. If you do a deeper research, you will know that they had produced a lot of non-German documentary theatres. This cultural phenomenon showcases an array of social phenomenon in Germany, waiting to be interpreted by its audience. It’s a theatre form that has developed over time in the German theatre industry, not only showing entertaining content, but also sparking critical reflection among the audience. We need to understand the course of development of this art form, as we can’t expect direct replicas can receive similar popularity in Asia. (to be continued)