Reflections on cultural exchange

In the last post, we touched on the ‘discovery phase’ of user research for our current project with the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, Poland, which led us to focus on how simultaneously to serve the Institute’s local, national, and international target audiences. The guiding figure in the Institute’s mission — the Polish theatre and performance director and researcher Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999) — was a pioneer of cross-cultural performance practice and investigation. It seems fitting, then, that any digital media project connected with Grotowski’s name should seek to open up and facilitate opportunities for cultural exchange in these areas. This is also in keeping with the broad spectrum of activities that the Institute in Wroclaw aims to realize by means of the e-services, which spans publishing, archiving, events, and documentation content that is accessible to diverse user communities, across many different situations and locales, and which often has cultural and linguistic translation at its heart.

As a first step, we therefore sought to gather an informal, multilingual working group that would inform the building of the e-services and be active throughout the course of the digital project — perhaps longer, if it proved useful for the Institute and managed to bring together interesting ideas and perspectives that resonated beyond the immediate creation of the new platform. Its activity would also form the basis for a virtual conference at the end of the project, and the group would further act as a forum for sharing information about the kinds of work being done — and the best-practices currently being implemented — in digital networking ventures in the fields of theatre and performance in various regions of the world.

Our preliminary discussions have focused on the core areas of how people find, access, consume, and re-use cultural and research activity being undertaken beyond their immediate linguistic or regional context. How do we usually discover the key ideas that are emerging outside our familiar communities? How do we make sense of their similarities, differences, intersections, areas of overlap or divergence with our own? How do we identify the content we’d need in order to better understand these relationships? And how do we obtain that content — which may be out of reach beyond a paywall, or only available onsite at a distant location, or otherwise inaccessible due to linguistic barriers — without necessarily having a distributed personal network of collaborators who could help with this?

Several popular social media channels have helped to some extent with these issues of recognition and access, but in themselves they do not offer the tools to present — or to discover across languages or disparate communities — long-form, multiformat arts and humanities content. Instead, such work is often confined to proprietary scholarly platforms, primarily those serving university constituencies in relatively wealthy countries. The Grotowski Institute has expressed to us a strong desire to open up materials for its audience where possible, regardless of that audience’s background, situation, or resources — so our next task is to come up with some solutions for how to overcome common barriers that inhibit users’ discovery of and access to resources.