Fri 25 Nov, 2016

How To Respond Creatively To A Year As Unsettling As 2016?

Let the past give context to our current-day despair

Luke Sewell / #history, #Orbital, #politics

I’m not sure many people will miss 2016. It’s been bizarre and consistently troubling and I’m sure the phrase ‘annus miserabilis’ may well be dusted off a few times in end of the year reviews. But how do we respond to such a year? Luke Sewell has found a somewhat more constructive approach than plastering social media with gifs of Donald Trump ‘dancing like a dork’ or earnest armchair rants. I’ll let him explain.

On January 10th 2016, David Bowie passed away. As someone who had profoundly enjoyed his music since childhood, I was emotional.

Little over 10 months on, if you check in with the global echo-chamber of social media, you can be quite easily convinced that Bowie was single-handedly holding the space time continuum together. People are going nuts about how apocalyptic 2016 has been so far.

I have to admit that halfway through the year, I got rather caught up in this. Laid low by the appalling level of public dialogue surrounding Brexit, made miserable by the monotonous dehumanisation of African-Americans across the Atlantic and then thoroughly stunned by the death of Muhammad Ali a week after I finished reading Norman Mailer’s The Fight, I could have been convinced that 2016 was the worst year on record. And the US election was 5 months away.

It was at this point that I started doing some research. I studied History at school and Ancient History at University, so I was aware that tumultuous periods of change have happened before. I was also frustrated (and in all honesty Harambe was responsible for this) by the level of outrage and emotion at the deaths of celebrities and animals when terrible things happen to humans every day on other parts of the globe.

In July, quite by chance, I began reading into the Congo Crisis, which took place after the Congo won its independence from Belgium in 1960. It is a long, painful and fascinating story which cannot be done justice here. But parts of the story reminded me of a Malcom X speech I had read the previous summer. Indeed, Malcolm had directly referenced the crisis.

I realised that this whole crisis would have intersected a fundamentally vital time in the movement for Black Civil Rights in the States. And that this must have overlapped with the beginning of US involvement in Vietnam. And the start of Beatlemania. And the establishment of the African Union.

And suddenly, a 12-month period in the early ‘60s began to bear some resemblance to ‘2016: The Dumpster Fire Of A Year Without Precedent™’. People had just forgotten.

So at the start of August, I began putting together a plan to re-tell these stories. It was in part aimed at showing that periods of apparent chaos and destruction have happened before, but in many instances they bore good things. This wasn’t an effort to diminish wrongs that have happened in 2016 or any other time period. I simply wished to tell stories that had been forgotten, or stories which are remembered out of context.

In the same way that people mourn a gorilla but forget garment workers today, we are prone to remembering iconic pieces of history but forgetting their context. Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech is remembered as a triumphant moment in the Civil Rights Movement, as if President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into being before the applause had even died away.

In reality, less than a month after the speech, four little girls were killed in a terrorist attack by white Klansmen on the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I imagine that at the time, the situation would have seemed hopeless and Dr. King’s speech redundant.

And that’s important to remember when we feel despair today.

I’m also taking a course in Museum Practice at the moment. I am passionate about underrepresented or forgotten storylines. Akala touched on this in a video on ‘British Values’ this year, pointing out that some of the narratives most essential to our nation’s history are often the most easily forgotten.

I love a good story; the quirkier the better. Underneath all the fear, change, violence and chaos, you will always find these where you least expect them. In my life this year I have profoundly enjoyed some alternative narratives; the breaking of a 108-year-old goat-curse, Ava DuVernay’s 13th and an 8-year-old neighbour who cycled 12 miles to help others halfway around the world.

Orbital, which will go live on December 1 this year, is a blog that will sometimes look like a museum exhibit, or a newspaper article, or a non fiction storybook. It will cover one year of history over the same relative time period, finishing in November of next year. I hope it will be interesting, enlightening and fun, and I hope you will visit it as we move from 2016 into whatever stories 2017 holds.

The blog goes live on 1st December at: https://orbital.live  and you can keep updated through twitter or facebook

One-time archaeologist interested in vegetables, history, photography and decolonising everything.

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