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What Art can do for the UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015 the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals – as a roadmap for the sustainable development of all people and our planet.

In this session cultural innovator Jasper Visser talks with composer and art activist Merlijn Twaalfhoven about what art can do for the SDGs.

Expect to be inspired by artists and museums from around the world and be empowered to lead the change in your organisation or community.

Jasper Visser is a consultant and facilitator working with cultural & civic organisations.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven is a composer and artistic entrepreneur.

 

Transcript

Jasper Visser:

Hello everyone. My name is Jasper Visser and I’m here with Merlijn Twaalfhoven to have a 20, 30 minute conversation about what art can do and what museums can do for the Sustainable Development Goals. So in 2015 United nations and all government leaders from around the world adopted a very ambitious agenda for the year 2030, popularly known as the Sustainable Development Goals. These are 17 goals that aim at everything from and into poverty, to reduce inequalities, improve biodiversity and a range of other topics. And although culture is only mentioned in one sub target of the Sustainable Development Goals, among as well known 11.4, we feel that art, culture and the artist mindset plays a incredible role in achieving a world that is greener, fairer, more equal for everyone.

So what we want to do is explore how we, as cultural professionals, how artists and our institutions, can contribute to this world. And I’m very happy that I’m doing this conversational not alone, but together with Merlijn, who’s a world renowned composer and activist for a better and more equitable world. Merline welcome. Maybe before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about what you do and who you are?

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. I was on the conservatory for becoming a composer, so I compose for orchestras, choirs. But pretty soon I felt that the setting of having a stage and a passive audience didn’t fit with my own experience because I used to play viola inside an orchestra, and it is so beautiful to be immersed in music. And I loved to bring that also to the audience. So I started first to experiment with different spaces, different locations, different settings, that the audience can walk through the orchestra or that the singers would be in the audience. And then while doing these type of experiences, I also discovered that the story of the place, the location, and the people that relate to it should be part of the story of my music. So if you go with music to a place, you experience the place, not just the music, but the entire environment, and this environment is rich of stories, of traditions, but it can also be rich in the present.

For example, when you work in a place where there is social tensions or where there is poverty, or it can be a huge conflict between minorities or like in Palestine and Israel, you have these big political, geopolitical, tensions. So I started working in these type of complex places and exploring the way music can bring people together. The way music can open up maybe to imagination, to possibilities, maybe to fantasies, maybe people can share dreams and not just stick to the grim reality. So after several years working Cyprus, Palestine, Rio de Janeiro, in Damascus, in refugee camps, too, I became convinced that I should not see this work as just myself as being an artist, going somewhere and doing something nice or beautiful or meaningful, but that there is more fundamental thing that I wanted to question that is shouldn’t we all become more artistic in our approach of problems?

Jasper Visser:

And by all you mean even us, them.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Every one of us. I mean, some people have challenges maybe just in their family about taking care or organising the way they work or they deal with the daily struggles. Also, there, as soon as it becomes really complex, an artist mindset might help. So in smaller situations, in communities, in cities, in societies. So I became really like an investigator about art projects that actually break the patterns that we are sometimes stuck in. So as a society, we have systems, we have patterns and we feel that it’s given, we can’t move much. And that situations, I believe we should really, actually, start moving.

Jasper Visser:

All right.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

Wow, so that’s a big dream of Merline. Thank you so much. We’ll touch upon some of the elements that you spoke about and especially thing that where you say that art plays a role in fixing or addressing things that are wrong, whether it’s in your own community or maybe in your own organisation or in the world at large, as we see where the Sustainable Development Goals is something we’ll look into. So maybe before we go further, it’s also good if I say a few words about myself.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

I’ll leave the passion to you, and then I’ll take the organisational part. And I’m not an artist like Merline, but many as many of you know, I’m a consultant and advisor to cultural organisations to become more community focused, to become more responsive to the societies that they’re part of.

Jasper Visser:

And also, currently, I’m holding a role as a project director of a nonprofit that aims, specifically, at using the cultural infrastructure and artists and the artists’ mindset in achieving the Sustainable Developments Goal. So strategy on the one hand and hands-on practical experience on the other hand. Although I don’t want to pretend I have this much hands-on experience as you do. So thank you so much for being here again. Merline, you already mentioned that you worked in refugee camps, you worked in conflict areas, you worked in other parts of the world where there’s truly tension and opposition, maybe even between people. And can you tell us maybe a little bit about one or two piece project that to you really showed the role arts can play in addressing social issues?

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. Yeah. It’s only now that I can describe it, because when I was doing it, I just followed my intuition indeed and my passion, for example, Cyprus, the country that’s divided between the Turkish north and the Greek south. I thought let’s put musicians on rooftops and see if we can hear each other, if we can actually play together. That was a whole project, it took a year to organise and, finally, a lot of people participated. But only later I realised that it was the moments of silence, that there was maybe no music and something was going on, it created a openness. This openness was maybe more revolutionary than the whole music part, because to relate to a place that has all these tragedies connected to it, especially Cypress, where there has been a civil war and until today you have this buffer zone in the middle dividing also the capital city, a bit like Berlin, you see.

It’s so painful. It’s so traumatic. People are angry. People are full of thoughts and emotions, but in the course of our music performance, there was suddenly some silence. And later people told me how they felt the openness, the fact that in the present there is no civil war. There is a crazy situation, but there is also possibilities. And when you created type of situations, the attention that people have for music or for beautiful things, for visuals, it makes also that people are aware about possibilities, or they take the time to be present and not to be full of judgement . So I sensed years later that to postpone your judgement or to create situations where people are not full of their standing point, that they don’t know which political party they belong to, or even which opinion they have. No, they let it go, they let it flow because it’s art. They’re-

Jasper Visser:

So our disrupts, basically the normal state of things-

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

…. so that people stop and take stock of what is happening and maybe notice or observe anew what is going on.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. Yeah. I know from a city planner or someone who was renovating in cities, person said, you cannot build without digging a hole first. So first you need to know, where is the space? So in that I believe a lot of people want to change the world, they have a lot of ideas about how it should be or what should be built or what should be created, but they don’t think of how we should open certain conceptions or how we should create space about what should be removed first? Where is the space?

Jasper Visser:

If you say that, does that imply that many of the people watching this video, they’ve chosen their profession, no doubt, because they feel they want to have a positive impact on their community, on the world, maybe just on their immediate neighbourhood, that to them as well, taking an artist approach or an artist mindset to their work is a good starting point?

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. I know there is an interesting contradiction, art means freedom. Art means, well, you don’t need to be inside a tradition, you can reinvent things. You can be original. You can find new ways. But wait, the art world has very strict structures or very strict situations, very strict ways to earn a living or to become successful. Those really shape the way we are all work. And in that sense, you have these two beautiful words, scarcity and abundance. They are key, I believe, to a lot of things. I believe you need abundance in order to have, for example, a healthy nature, it’s abundance of diversity. But also a healthy society is abundance of diversity. Art is a place of abundance. You can celebrate, you can play, you can create. But wait, the profession of art to be an artist, or to be a professional inside the art field is full of scarcity. You don’t have money, you don’t have time, you don’t have audience, you don’t have certain whatever.

Jasper Visser:

You don’t have a job maybe, even for a lot of people right now.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. So that is a crazy contradiction or almost a paradox. How can we keep this abundance mindset, even in the situation where scarcity is a rule or scarcity is everywhere.

Jasper Visser:

And it’s a challenge. And of course, we’re here also maybe to answer or provide guidance to people. And if you were to translate this, I know your experiences is in performing arts, but you’ve worked with artists of all kinds and in all sorts of settings. And you also know the museum world, which is the primary domain of audience. Say, if you’re a communications or a project manager within a museum working with heritage artists, do you have one recommendation to create abundance even though there’s scarcity?

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. Well, it sounds abstract, but to search places of abundance or spaces in between where we have attention, where we have time, where we can be, that is the core, I believe, of this whole profession. So if audience enter the building that is, I believe, already the big victory, the fact that they enter. But I know that the biggest question is why do a lot of people not enter the museum or why they, what makes them coming or experiencing, or should the museum move out to other places where people have attention or where people come together? And I believe that we really should look to how people function socially.

We always are looking for relations, and that is different just from experiences that we can just buy, we can buy beautiful movie experiences or beautiful shopping experiences, and also a beautiful museum experience, but they have a conflict together. You go in the town and you can have all kinds of nice experiences, but what about relationships? Can people build something? Can people be something, or can people feel they belong somewhere? So this is pretty abstract, but for me, that is the core of just looking to what is the nature of a human being and where is the passion and the focus of, I believe, the human system. And that is a focus on relationship, on social organisations or social ways.

Jasper Visser:

Indeed, it sounds a big abstract. I understand perfectly what you’re saying. I think many of you also understand what Merline is I saying. And I want try and make it more concrete, but let’s narrow it down first a little bit. So we launched this platform called What Art Can Do, actually, you launched it, and we’re trying to revamp it at the moment. And you launched this specifically to have a look at what art and what culture and the artist’s mindset can do to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. And the beauty of Sustainable Development Goals, for those of you are aware and who will recognise this, is that they make these abstract ideas. Very specific-

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Very specific. Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

An end to poverty, equal pay between men and women and all these other very specific targets that have been addressed. So up to you to pick one, but what can I do to fix, for instance, poverty?

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. Yeah. And it’s lovely to talk with us about abundance and or scarcity and poverty is this scarcity issue. So there are artists who go live in maybe areas where poverty is big problem. And the nature of an artist is not to look for a problem to solve, but to look around and to be also aware of what’s going on and to see beauty, to find beauty. And that sounds, sometimes for a professional who wants to solve a problem, why all this beauty? Because we have a problem, we must fix it and it’s ugly, it’s not beautiful. But beauty is also a way of relating to things. So I went with an artist, just walking in, let’s call it, a poor neighbourhood. And we were asking people, what would you do if you are the mayor for a day or you have superpower for one day?

And besides of the conversations, which is a whole story and a whole investigation and we learned a lot and it was beautiful interviews, but there was an artist who draw a portrait of the person who was talking. And that was the gift. Thank you for the conversation. It was maybe five or 10 minutes meeting that we had. Thank you for sharing your story about, basically, the daily struggle, because that was what people were telling us. And the people received the portraits of themselves with some words and some phrases. And I was actually surprised the impact it had. And later we were puzzled, why was this such a big gift for them? Because it was only a drawing that this artist could make it 10 minutes, it was not that special. Yes, it was special because they felt really seen.

Jasper Visser:

And listened to and understood maybe and cared about. And so that’s creating a balance in the room. I’m thinking of a similar project that museum Rotterdam did years ago. It’s almost, I think, over a decade ago where they went to the south of Rotterdam, a neighbourhood where a lot of people live on very limited means, and they followed a group of women, the [foreign language 00:18:33] if I remember it correctly, for almost a year and discovered their relationship to poverty.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

And really, as she said, and I think it’s beautiful, how they also discovered how there’s beauty and abundance in their situation. I very vividly remember, this is of course a city museum, so more interested in heritage than in art. But at the end of the project, after a collaboration of a year with these ladies and really understanding the world, they were asked, how do you want us to present this?

Jasper Visser:

Do you want us to make an exhibition? Do you want us to make a show or an event or programming. And the women said, oh, we’d like a glossy magazine to be the result of this.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

And to be beautiful, the rich people are beautiful, and the museum made that. And I still have it at home, the magazine and I’d scope every woman and I flipped through it occasionally, and it is beautiful.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

And I remember that it was so beautiful to them that they actually gifted some objects from their own lives to the museum, because they thought, hey, museum is objects. So-

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Museum means attention. And to bring anything in a museum, there is a very magic happening that thing would deserve attention or get attention. So to bring a problematic situation that is neglected in a museum setting means suddenly there is attention. And my story about being seen is ,of course, just the beginning of a process where you just find alternatives for richness, not only monetary richness, no, there is more ways of being rich and feeling rich. We should also solve the monetary thing, but it can help to start solving more problems that are not just financially, and then there might be alternative ways or unexpected ways also to solve the financial side.

Jasper Visser:

I loved how you said, museum means attention. And having facilitated more of these conversations, I know when people start sending tweets, this is really one of these phrases, I think. And the way I read it is not as a given, it’s not every museum experience always means attention, but it’s a called direction, museum means attention and make that happen. I think what’s interesting is, so from an organisational point of view I get the question a lot, what can museums do to help support these Sustainable Development Goals? And I know before we’ve been talking about… Well, I always see three ways in which they can do, the first one is the thing we all should do, and I don’t know how you said it, how do you say con… How you say it in English? The [foreign language 00:21:27].

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Oh yes. Do the chores.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah. Yeah. So just instal solar panels ensure that your bathrooms are inclusive and welcoming to all people. Treat your stuff with respect, pay everybody. That’s the basics. And I’m not saying it’s easy because if you look at the 17 goals and 169 targets that are part of the agenda 2030, nobody checks all of them. And you don’t have to check all of them. It’s not a checklist, but it’s a very good reminder to do your chores all of us in your day to day work. And that’s not really the most interesting.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

No, I believe people in culture and in the arts, their power is storytelling, all levels. And our storytelling in this world has become toxic. And that’s because media has a rule that attention is the most important. While we are talking about attention, I also believe it’s the gold of this time. And media are in the struggle to capture attention and when something is sensational or very provocative, it means attention. But the same as sure high, it gives you a short boost. And very soon you need more. It is a very toxic way of attention. A talk show, we all know that you put people towards each other, and then for example, you say, oh, we have a big problem, we have a problem about the natural resources and the fact that we need to feed all these billions of people in the world.

What about agriculture? There is pollution. There is animal cruelty, and we have health issues with eating meat. Let’s talk about eating meat. And then you invite in the talk show, this scientist who says, look at the pollution, the methane from the cows. And I have some graphs and it is really devastating and the climate change and so on. Look at this, look at that. Okay, fine. And now we switch to the other side of the table. Then there is a farmer who says, look, this is a very honest work, I work with the animals, I respect the animals, this is beautiful and because of all these changes I will lose my job. I have to cancel my whole farm. I can never follow all these regulations. I feel sad. Maybe he start crying and the audience has a needs to choose-

Jasper Visser:

Yeah. Do you believe-

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

What do you believe? What we need is a third way. Someone who says, okay, let’s bring a piglet in a classroom. And just in schools, see how to raise the piglet. Can we feed? It becomes bigger. And in the end of the year, we make a scholar fest and we make a big celebration and we eat our pig. Let’s do that in schools. And maybe the farmer can be involved. I’m sure that this is not already a choice between, should we stop eating meat or should we continue? No. It slows down the process of making that decision.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah. Yeah.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Because instead of being in the shops choosing between a vegetarian hamburger or meat hamburger, you need a few seconds, but now it’s in your classroom and you can relate to it. Does it feel well? Maybe some people decide, yes, it feels okay. I treat the animals with respect, at the end of the line, I eat it. I celebrate.

Jasper Visser:

There’s a little of arts and heritage and crafts involved in the caring and-

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah, it’s a tradition. Maybe my grandmother has a beautiful recipe. It’s okay. But this decision is spread out maybe over a year. And so, art can slow down things.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah. It’s beautiful. So the second level, indeed of what I say, after doing your chores, which is something we all should do, is this where a museum or any organisation for that matter picks its story. A story like this would make sense in a history museum or in a museum of agriculture, maybe even in an art museum.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. Maybe some of you will think, wait to bring a piglet in a classroom, is that hard work? Well, in practise, I have seen several this type of projects, it was all artists who were doing it.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

So it’s not that I decide this is art. No, artists decide this needs to be done.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

So that’s complex interesting dynamic.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah, indeed and maybe as you said, a piglet, if you’re a maritime museum maybe the piglet is not your story, but then I’m thinking about the maritime museum here in Amsterdam where we are right now, whose story, of course, is a story of the history of the sea and of maritime history. But they currently still have on a climate changes exhibition, because it also has to do with the sea and the rising sea levels. And they’ve decided that’s our story that we need to tell. And that’s where we can actually make a difference.

So it’s up to you as a professional to see where does my story connect with these Sustainability Development Goals. But then there’s a third and that’s something I’d be interested in as well, maybe very specifically to artists like you, the profession that you’re doing, and the third way museums can support Sustainability Development Goals and maybe the most important is, they can support others. As you say, museum means attention instead of, I don’t know, inventing the wheel yourself, you can support others in direction. And in your work or your artists you work with, have you ever felt a moment where a museum really stood up and gave a platform to ideas that needed you to be-

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Well, what is beautiful as an art professional is that once in a while you get the opportunity to really show, basically, your research, because I, myself, I brought my music out of the concert halls so I had two organise everything myself. But once in a while, a concert hall invited me like, please come here and show what you’re doing. For example, I was working with Syrian refugees and I could bring the best musicians from Syria who are currently living in the Netherlands and I could bring them to the big, like Royal Concertgebouw, which was really beautiful because the Concertgebouw means this is our most cherished thesis that’s around.

Jasper Visser:

It’s a stamp of approval for whatever’s happening inside. Yeah.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. The time’s so scarce, the area on the stage is scarce. So what there means a lot not just that you earn a fee, no, it means like stage.

Jasper Visser:

Recognition. Yeah.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. And so it was beautiful to bring some children who came from Syria, but who are beautiful musicians. But to give them that real stage. So there is a dynamic between work on the floor, in society and the places where we can really reflect on it and can show what it is to give also legitimation. Yeah.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah. Wow. It’s beautiful. So there’s a network called Museums for Future, what is associated with the fighters for future movement and I know how every so many times when there’s a global climate strike on, museums around Europe also step up… In the world, actually step up to do these little things, give a stage to young activists, support them with little exhibitions or just a space where it’s very easy. It’s the abundance of the museum, your space, your ability to welcome people, which is super scarce to many of these artists and activists. So it’s, again, this abundance and scarcity exchanges. So we’re revamping What Arts Can Do. And as we’re also wrapping up this conversation, maybe for the viewers who are interested in the role of art and museums and culture and the artists’ mindset in the Sustainably Development Goals, what art can do, what can it do for them and how can they contribute?

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. We are working on a collection of examples. And these examples, we love to show them, for example, if the reason a museum who has a certain, for example, energy transition, is topic. We have a database with all kinds of different ways to address energy transition with an artist mindset that has big variation. So I would really invite anyone to contact us if they have a specific topic search.

We also have these artists, we know these artists, who might also make a presentation about their process or their approach, because the process is often as much interesting as the result. So it’s lovely to bring this artist, to show them how they work. And finally, of course, it will be lovely if these artists also can find new assignments, new ways or places or residencies to actually continue their work.

Jasper Visser:

Yeah.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Maybe to wrap up, indeed, I would stress that art is not just the professional artists. I believe art, it is a mindset that we can awaken with the people who visit. So the audience of the museum very often might experience something that realise that they are themselves creative. They are open for beauty. They can play more, they can find more spaces to see this third way that I believe is the biggest importance to activate an artist’s mindset among everyone.

Jasper Visser:

Thank you so much. And we also need volunteers to help us scout this abundance of artists and activists, working on social and sustainability issues around the world and to learn from their practise. Because also I think, and we both recognise this, the quest of using art and culture and museums and the cultural infrastructure to make the world a better place, it’s really a quest. There’s not a definite answer yet. It’s a process that we need to explore. And I’m looking forward to doing that also together with you. So Merline, I’m sure people are interested in your work. Where can do they go to learn more?

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Well, of course, whatartcando.org.

Jasper Visser:

Which is linked, I think, in the description below.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven:

Yeah. So I look forward to keep in touch.

Jasper Visser:

Thank you so much. And thank you for watching. We hope to meet you again soon. It’s been a pleasure and take care. Thanks so much.

 

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