It’s not every job you start where the first thing they ask is can you write a couple of hundred words on “What Culture Means to Me”. I’ve not written essays since I was in school. Mostly I draw pictures and maps and diagrams and directions.
I’m not sure I can map out with a biro what culture is or means to me.
The best definition I heard was someone who said “Culture is what we grow in”.
Which I like because it begs all sorts of questions like;
Who is this “we”?
What do you mean by “grow”?
And it makes it sound like it’s an invisible thing that’s vital. Like oxygen. Or love.
That without it we are diminished. We shrivel up, dry out, expire.
It sounds full of the future, full of hope, like things are possible, or that it makes things possible.
Culture is…an invisible thing full of hope that makes things possible…?
Like a good ghost? A warm friendly spirit surrounding you and helping you forward?
Maybe that’s a piece of it.
But where does it come from, this culture? Maybe it’s what grows in the space between story and real life. Like when you tell a good untruth. When you tell your kids the sweet shop shut early to save their teeth and your pocket. Or when you tell your brokenhearted friend there’s many more fish in the sea, and wonder if there is. Or whenever you optimistically say “next time”.
When you put a layer of story on top of the everyday and a magical gap opens between the two where new things become possible.
I’ve been thinking about that gap. It’s the gap that appears magically when you put on a fancy dress and become someone else, you can be louder or sexier or bolder or let yourself go a bit.
It appears when you mess about with words or lines on a page and have no sense of where they might take you, or start whistling or singing or letting your fingers play with a piano’s notes or shuffle around your kitchen swinging your arms like a lunatic to a tune on the radio like it’s the best ever club.
It appears when you decide to yourself that today you’re going to play at being a different version of you, or when lot’s of people decide that together, like on St Patrick’s Day or Christmas, or at protests or celebrations or parties, or the World Cup or the Olympics, or when there’s a good online game or a real world one.
I think it also appears in the cracks where we break and mend or try to.
There is a Japanese tradition of mending broken pots where gold is added to whatever glues them back together. The mend becomes beautiful. It’s a part of the pot. It wouldn’t be that beautiful pot if you didn’t know there was a break that mended.
It’s a crack that lets the light in.
Maybe people are like that. Maybe that’s where culture comes from.
An invisible thing full of hope that makes things possible that comes from cracks in people?
Except I don’t much like definitions because they label things, and once a thing is labelled you can put it away and forget it. Like a lifeless thing. Like a present from someone you don’t care about that started on the mantelpiece in the front room and travelled around the house as you lost touch and now goes in a box in the attic and sooner or later to the second hand shop.
And culture isn’t like that.
It’s alive. Very much alive. It’s a breathing changing growing thing. It changes attitude and temperature. It travels continents and crosses all the borders you can imagine and reshapes them. It blends and mixes and pops out again in a new shape unexpectedly somewhere else. It’s as clear a thread through generations of people over centuries as DNA, as trackable and visible as footprints.
And you can make it. You can add to it. You can jump in its river or paddle in its streams, or cast off on its oceans. You can take from it and add to in a hundred thousand ways and ways that haven’t happened before.
So come on then. What are we waiting for. Let’s go play with the culture.
Dominic Campbell was a project manager on Dublin’s Culture Connects’ The National Neighbourhood 2017-2018. His project worked in partnership with the South Central Area Office, the local public libraries, the City Arts Office, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Chester Beatty Library.
With those projects now completed, we look back on what he said when asked “What Does Culture Mean to Me”…