Our world today faces a major paradox: the globalization of communication is countered by the identification of culture. On the one hand, power and wealth are organized in networks of communication and transportation that support a global financial market, a transnational production system of goods and services, a global consumer market, an interdependent political system, and a global media industry with the capacity to shape minds everywhere. On the other hand, available evidence shows that people around the world feel increasingly rooted in their own cultures, traditional or reconstructed, that often become their trenches of resistance and their personal refuge in the midst of a seemingly uncontrollable process of globalization that responds to logics and interests perceived as incomprehensible and ultimately threatening by most dwellers of the blue planet.
The world is not flat. It is made of diversity, history, tradition, religion, patriotism, ethnic roots, strong family ties and intense personal networks. In one word: identity, either inherited or self-constructed. Of course, there is a small minority of cosmopolitans, citizens of the world that feel at ease in the same luxury hotels, airport VIP lounges, international meetings and the trading rooms of the corporate networks. Furthermore, there is a global Hollywood culture, as well as a global musical culture, that populates the experience of people everywhere with the sounds and images of what is produced by a small group of media conglomerates. And yet, study after study, and survey after survey, including the World Values Survey, show an extraordinary persistence of cultural identity and the strong diversity of our world. Thus, the global culture, spurred by the global communication industry, is overlayered on this diversity, not dissolving it, but flavouring it. In fact, the global culture is itself transformed by cultural diversity, since to reach broader markets the media and film industries often have to script the old formulas in new formats adapted to their cultural context, as well as incorporate products and talent from diverse cultural origins.
The consequence is that while we are economically, environmentally and politically intertwined around the world, most people in the world do not share the same cultural codes. We see each other from the outside, we do not understand each other’s values, and when we come into conflict the attempt to homogenize societies around the world on the basis of dominant value systems provokes a backlash whose consequences we suffer every day. As long as we do not abandon the implicit assumption of our role as civilizers, that has characterized the Western world throughout the modern age, we will not be able to live in peace.
The Internet is a global network of horizontal, interactive communication. Therefore, it was supposed to be the solution to our dilemma: everybody could reach out to everybody everywhere. Besides, it has largely a common language: nowadays only 28% of Internet users are from English-speaking countries but 75% of Internet content is in English because when people want to communicate worldwide, they use the lingua franca. Yet, the ability to communicate with the same language does not mean that we understand each other, because understanding requires common codes, that is, either a common culture or a system of translation from one code to another. The problem is that communication on the Internet is self-selected and self-directed. We choose what we want to see and with whom we want to share, so we reproduce ourselves in our networks of choice. The Internet is indeed a hypertext, in the sense that most of the products of human creation can be accessed via the Internet or other computer networks. But I do not live in the hypertext, but in my hypertext—the one I construct everyday around my interests, projects, dreams and nightmares. Therefore, while the Internet communicates globally, it also separates the globe along the lines of cultural specificity. We reinforce our tribes rather than building a shared community.
The consequences of this double process of instrumental communication and cultural incommunication are daunting. Because if we are forced to live day by day with those who we do not understand, because we do not share the codes, they become “others,” that is, “aliens,” and ultimately part of a different species. Then when fear arises, violence is an acceptable reaction because, since they are aliens, we have to defend ourselves and, most importantly, we can do so without recognizing their humanity. We only feel the same with those whose codes and values we understand.
To unlock an increasingly autistic cultural exchange, we must find channels of communication that trigger enough understanding to induce a broader exploration of shared codes of communication. We know that our brains, that is, ourselves, are primarily based on emotions and feelings that shape our reasoning. Thus, we must be first be moved together, then feel together, then think about the feasibility and interest of living together. My proposition is that, throughout the history of humankind, art has been the trigger of shared emotions and feelings that reach far beyond the boundaries set by normative patterns of coexistence in specific societies. Art is communication of the soul, that is, of the preconscious brain. Art is the most potent channel of intercultural communication. Therefore, in a global world sick of lack of communication between increasingly defensive cultures, art becomes the art-i-fact to trigger the possibility of sharing meaning, thus creating the possibility of humans feeling together.
CalArts does exactly that. First, it does so by encompassing in its teaching and research the whole span of human artistic creativity in its extraordinary diversity. Second, CalArts brings in a highly diverse body of faculty and students and sets up the patterns of communication within its community of artists. In this regard, the institute is now recruiting more students from outside the United States than any period in its history. In the 2006–07 academic year, international students representing 33 nations, from Brazil to Morocco to Korea, accounted for 12 percent of the overall student population. But thirdly, and most importantly, CalArts is opening up new possibilities for meaningful communication by actively seeking to build bridges of collaboration with art institutions, artists and networks of art innovators around the world and across cultures. Today, CalArts’ international outreach extends to every continent.
Last year, for example, students and faculty from the School of Theater traveled to Rwanda to explore the ways in which art is contributing to the process of reconciliation and rebuilding following the 1994 genocide in that country. The CalArts group, led by Dean Erik Ehn, met with artists, teachers, scholars and social historians—as well as with survivors and perpetrators of the genocide—to learn from their insights and “bear mutual witness,” as Ehn puts it. This represented only the first stage of an ongoing dialogue with Rwandan artists. Earlier this year, the institute hosted the Arts in the One World Conference, an international symposium that focused on the situation in Rwanda in the context of the intimate interdependence of art and the ability to communicate—and share meaning—across social and cultural boundaries.
The list of CalArts’ international partners is extensive. The School of Art has been collaborating with Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London to publish Afterall, a leading art journal. The school also provides semester-long residencies to a number of the international artists who present exhibitions at the Gallery at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT). These have included the Danish collective Superflex and the Tokyo-based sculptor Taro Shinoda. In addition, the school has student exchanges with the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Hochschule der Kunste and the DAAD (Deutsche Akademischer Austauch Dienst) in Berlin and, most recently, art and design schools in China and Singapore. The Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance, meanwhile, has had an annual student exchange program with London Contemporary Dance School since 1989, and is currently involved in talks aimed at establishing student and faculty exchanges, and even joint degree programs, with dance academies in Beijing and Shanghai.
The School of Film/Video, for its part, is in the process of setting up exchange programs with institutions in France, the Czech Republic, India, China and Korea. Faculty from the film school have organized collaborations with partners such as the Global Film Initiative and the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media, leading to festivals and other programs presented at REDCAT. At the School of Theater, there are longstanding exchanges with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the New Zealand Drama School. As part of the association with the Royal Scottish Academy, faculty and students from the School of Theater, traveling under the banner of CalArts Ensemble Theater, have staged plays at the famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the past three years.
The School of Music has a special stake in international outreach because world music forms have been an integral part of its curriculum since the 1970s. In addition to the school’s resident West African, Indian and Indonesian ensembles, the New Century Players, the professional faculty-student new music group, regularly collaborate with and perform work by distinguished composers from Latin America, Europe and Asia. The school has student exchanges with the Royal Scottish Academy and Dartington College of the Arts, and is now exploring a new program with IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris.
At REDCAT, one-third of the programming presented by CalArts is devoted to international art, and much of this work deals with the need for intercultural communication. Over the past four seasons, REDCAT has featured highly innovative performing artists from all around the globe, including companies from Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Japan. The film and video programs have focused on emerging voices in world cinema, especially those associated with the New Chinese Cinema, while the Gallery at REDCAT has showcased work by many artists from across Asia. CalArts’ Center for New Performance, the professional producing arm of the institute, has led the way in developing groundbreaking new work by artists such as director Chen Shi-Zheng, playwright Michel Vinaver and, in a performance upcoming this fall, composer Sandeep Bhagwati—all artists who offer a global vision keenly attuned to our times.
This is not simply a strategy of achieving global academic excellence in the arts. It is, above all, using art to build a global cultural bridge in a world that gravely suffers from incommunication between the diverse cultures that are now woven in our everyday lives.
Manuel Castells is Professor of Communication and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Communication Technology and Society at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. He also is a trustee of CalArts. Castells is the author of more than 20 books, including the influential trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture.