This post was originally a series of live-tweets, so I’ve included some of the @replies, hashtags, and links so that you can join the ongoing conversation and follow some of these amazing individuals on their respective social media channels.
Last Sunday I spent a delightful day at the
#Culturunners storytelling symposium, over in the ACT Cube (E14-001). I confess, it was a refreshing change from the conferences I’m used to attending as an architecture history/theory/criticism student, in which a plethora of Distinguished Speakers hold forth interminably on a plethora of Esoteric Topics. Although the storytelling marathon lasted six hours, each speaker had the stage for ten minutes each, and the anecdotes were humorous, heartwarming, and thought-provoking. The cosy, casual environment (littered with floor-cushions and presided over by a disco ball) was inspired by the Majlis, an Arabic term for a welcoming environment embracing diverse types of social gatherings.
(As Azra clarified, “When the disco ball turns on, that is the time for questions.”)
More than anything, I was inspired by the premise of the whole symposium. The event was part of a week-long series of workshops and public events at MIT, bringing together an interdisciplinary collection of folks who creatively engineer cross-cultural exchanges between the USA and Middle East. Their dedication to creating an arsenal of tools for friendship in a time of “fear and loathing” is timely and courageous. For the event series, MIT is hosting artist collective Edge of Arabia, founded in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and now touring America. The collective has embarked on a three-year narrative journey that uses personal encounters to draw out cross-cultural connections between the USA and Middle East, challenging narrow definitions of identity. Their experiences will be broadcast over the course of their sojourn.
Co-chairs Azra Akšamija (MIT ACT Assistant Professor) and Stephen Stapleton (artist and Edge of Arabia co-founder) kicked off the symposium (with Azra ensconced in a luxuriously embroidered Egg chair). Stephen mused on Edge of Arabia’s evolution; being at MIT signalled a change in their practice, of being catapulted to the centre (of innovation/technology/etc) rather than hovering on the fringes. (Also, that tapestry-like backdrop is in fact Azra’s punnily clever Yarn-de-vous project, which deconstructs into a series of jackets.)
Curator and artist Ava Ansari joined in, and tongue-in-cheekily invited participants to take a snap with the “Other” in a photo-booth whose disorienting backdrops blurred the boundary between Orient and Occident. Other exhibited artwork, begging to be tested out, included inventive empathy machines, “micro-encounters” that compared hair samples under the microscope, a “Frenchised” Mona Lisa, and samples from Azra’s students.
(Of the student projects, I was particularly taken with Jen Krava’s Czech Kroj project on the top left, wherein she deconstructed a Czech waistcoat, and put the pieces into a series of DIY craft kits that lets hobbyists graft their individual personalities on to their cultural identities.)
And here’s mine, body/boundary, a sari-scape mapping imagined regions of dialogue/difference in South Asia based on the folds of different sari drapes, from Azra’s class 4.322/4.393: Culture Fabric.
While I was too delirious-exhausted from completing my piece in time for the symposium to take in the whole day’s events, I sat in on more than I intended to, sustained by far too much baklava. Some of the highlights were artist/educator Orkan Telhan’s meditation on cross-cultural customs of generosity – I was immediately reminded of my parents’ custom of always returning food-containers to neighbours with a sweet treat of thanks. Fashion editor Marriam Mossali (aka
@shoesanddrama) did a little mythbusting, reminding listeners that the abaya has a multi-layered history, including that of being fashionably appropriated and transformed from Turkey to the Yves Saint Laurent runway (she was appropriately dressed in her “No Brand” branded abaya).
Media Lab research associate and SMArchS alum Layla Shaikley’s (aka
@laylool) talk on #mipsterz – or Muslim hipsters was particularly entrancing. She shared a YouTube clip she made with some of her colleagues – in a word, they are FIERCE, and the video is a delight.
I was delighted to see some of my HTC colleagues – Jackson Davidow, Huma Gupta, and Nisa Ari – take the stage. Nisa talked about her Turkish-American father’s multi-layered personality, before treating the audience to a rendition of a Turkish song that her father likes.
Huma’s piece drew from her academic research on dastangoi, a form of storytelling in Urdu, and she recounted a modern storytelling session she attended at the Indian embassy in Afghanistan which led her to muse on identity, history, and the necessarily fragmented work of the historian.
I confess, though, that I was surreptitiously wiping away errant tears by the end of Jackson’s account of his summer sojourn to the Middle East, replete with gruelling interrogation at the Israeli border. I can’t quite capture in writing the spirit of his moving personal story, replete with a five-minute stream of terrifying/hysterical questions he was assaulted with, that moved to a meditation on homophobia and pinkwashing (note: if you have a better link, let me know).
I even received my daily dose of jargonese in learning about FUBU (“for us, by us”) spaces in the course of a conversation between Ava Ansari and Molly Kleiman.
Appropriately, the symposium concluded as all real symposia should — with a dance party.
Later in the week, students from 4.322/4.393 also got to peek inside the Edge of Arabia RV, which they will be taking on tour (sadly I don’t have an image of the interior!). Azra is determined to somehow equip it with a jacuzzi, if possible.
If you would like to read more, get involved with the Culturunners project, or give Azra suggestions on how to make her jacuzzi-dream a reality, see the Edge of Arabia page on their US tour, and the MIT ACT website pages on the symposium and the Culturunners events week.