On Language Lost and Found

October 17, 2013

After finishing my first year of study at Brown, I headed back to the UK. I caught up with friends and family, enjoyed my sister's wedding, and reflected on the beautiful chaos of the past 12 months. It was a relatively peaceful time and a good base from which to launch myself into my summer adventure: a 2-week solo trip to Hong Kong. 

margrave: shot of hong kongmargrave: shot of hong kong

I travelled to Hong Kong to explore the community arts scene. "Community arts" is a term I used during my professional life in London, where it is beginning to fall out of fashion and is inexorably being replaced with the phrase, "applied arts." The term "community arts" seem to signify a closed set of methodologies, whereas "applied arts" seems to cover a broader and open-ended range of work. During my first year at Brown I struggled with my terminology: how do I succinctly and effectively express the creative tradition of which I consider myself a part? Community / applied / social justice / socially engaged art? 

With this linguistic confusion in mind I landed in Hong Kong, totally unclear about how I 
would express my creative practice to my hosts. Imagine then, my surprise upon discovering that when I tentatively first used the phrase "community arts," I was met with enormous smiles of recognition and pride. My hosts not only understood the term, but dropped the same core texts, practitioners, and even knew some of the same projects. Adrian Jackson, Cardboard Citizens? Oh yes we've worked with him, ran into him in Tsim Shai Po market just this week! Augusto Boal? Oh yes, I took several of his workshops before he died. Playback 
Theatre? Pah, we don't just do Playback Theatre here, we've created PlayForward Theatre! 
And on it went...

A few months after my return to Providence, I'm still working through my understanding 
of how we use language to map out our professional territory. It seems to me that the US tends to use "community arts" to refer to geographic, usual urban, communities and it is usually underpinned by concerns of liveability, urban design, and hyper-local culture. My understanding of the same phase in London was more closely aligned with underprivileged communities (youth, older people, LGBTQ, etc.) and with ethnic minorities, and grew more out of a tradition of political protest, advocacy, and the right to arts participation and access. 

This latter description was closer to what I found in Hong Kong; a focus on the politics 
of access and engagement, and a similarly restrained attitude towards public displays of direct political protest. The arts were being used to express resistance without the explicit campaigning on the streets.

Margrave: Community Puppetry in Hong KongMargrave: Community Puppetry in Hong Kong

Prior to my arrival I had been unsure how I, a British ex-pat now living in the USA, would be received in Hong Kong. My travel inexperience quickly showed... the people I met were delighted to meet me and happy to speak about the community theatre they knew and loved. I was left exhilarated and utterly surprised as I realised the term that had caused me so much difficulty in America was immediately understood in all its nuances on the other side of the world.

-- Blogger Paul Margrave, second-year MA candidate in Public Humanities, reflects on his summer and summer practicum in Hong Kong in a two-part Hong Kong Exchanges blog series.  For the past decade, the Center for Public Humanities at Brown and the Center for Community Culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have engaged in an intership exchange program that enables us to welcome CUHK students and send Brown students abroad for practicum credit.  These are their stories.

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