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‘Got your mind set on a dream’: celebrating Windrush Day

On 21 June 1948, HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in Essex. It was the final stop of a journey that had begun a month earlier in Trinidad. Among the 1,027 travellers on board the ship were over 800 people from the Caribbean – predominantly Jamaican, but also Trinidadian, Bermudan, and Guyanese – who had chosen to migrate to the UK in search of work. 

It is now 72 years since these first arrivals of what would become known as the Windrush generation arrived on the Thames Estuary. To honour them, and the many thousands more who arrived in the UK in subsequent years, and their collective contribution to British Society, on Monday we celebrate Windrush Day. But we’ll come to that. First, a little more as to what brought people to this country from the Caribbean.

The people aboard Empire Windrush, and the thousands who would follow on subsequent vessels, came from the Commonwealth countries of the West Indies, encouraged to travel to Britain to help fuel the country’s recovery from the Second World War. There was much work to be found in the UK at the time – in industry, British Transport, public transport, and the National Health Service – and successive governments looked to entice West Indians to these roles through immigration campaigns. And for a lot of people in the Caribbean, that prospect of prosperity in the UK was too good to turn down.

 

We lived in islands where there is lovely sunshine, and sea and sand and all the rest of it… none of which you can eat.
Ivan Weeks, Windrush passenger, speaking to the BBC, for their 1998 documentary series Windrush

Many of those disembarking at Tilbury were former servicemen who had fought for Britain in the Second World War. Among them was Harry Wilmot, a cabinet maker and former RAF pilot, who, six years later, would father the singer, actor and performer Gary Wilmot. Also onboard the Empire Windrush was the Trinidadian calypso singer Aldwyn Roberts, better known by his stage name Lord Kitchener. Prior to leaving the boat, both were interviewed by a Pathé News reporter, with Roberts, giving an impromptu performance of his song ‘London is the Place for Me’.

 

Pathe Reporter Meets (1948)

But once they left the boat, many found that the vision of a better life promoted by the UK government was often at odds with the reality they faced. The new arrivals, whether settling in London, or other cities across the UK, including Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool, experienced prejudice, and intolerance on a daily basis. Racism would affect every facet of their life, from denial of housing and employment, to barring of entry to pubs, clubs and even churches.

 

They tell you it is the 'mother country', you're all welcome, you all British. When you come here you realise you're a foreigner and that's all there is to it.
John Richards, Windrush passenger, speaking to the BBC documentary for their 1998 series Windrush

Between the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the enactment of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, which would restrict entry to the UK, it is estimated that the number of people in Britain born in the West Indies rose from the low thousands to around 172,000. And despite the barriers, and discrimination they faced, the Windrush generation emphatically contributed, and would continue to contribute, to British society in almost every field.

 

Race Relations Act at 50: The King family

When they first  arrived in the UK, the Windrush generation, as they were Commonwealth citizens, neither needed, nor were given any, documents. They had a right to permanently remain and, even after changes to immigration laws in the early 1970s, many were never given, or asked to provide, documentary evidence of their right to be in the UK. And so for four decades those who arrived as part of the Windrush generation lived and worked and studied and retired in the UK, believing themselves to be British citizens. And why wouldn’t they? What worth was an extra piece of paper, when they’d already contributed so much to the country in which they lived?

But then in 2012, the government introduced its hostile environment policy. This set of administrative and legislative measures had been designed to make staying in Britain as difficult as possible for those perceived to be here illegally. There was suddenly greater pressure on people born overseas to prove their right to be in the UK. And, having never been provided with documentation to support their UK residency, the Windrush generation now found themselves at risk of, and threatened with, deportation. This included many people who had spent their entire lives in Britain, and now faced being made to ‘return’ to countries they had never visited.

 

It’s had a rippling after effect in terms of making the Black British community feel even more unwelcome in this country than they did prior.
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, author of 'Mother Country, on the Windrush Scandal'

What would become known as ‘the Windrush scandal’ came to a head in 2018, with increasing pressure from the press, politicians, and campaign groups forcing a halt to deportations. But this was not before many people from the Windrush generation had lost their jobs or homes, been denied medical care, or even been detained or wrongly deported, as a result of the policy.

In late 2018, ‘the Windrush scandal’ was the focus of Violet Nights, the Southbank Centre’s real-life forum for online conversations. Chaired by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Deputy Editor at gal-dem magazine and author of the book Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, the discussion featured Grime MC Marci Phonix and artist Rachelle Romeo.

In this podcast of the event, the trio discuss the real-life stories behind the headlines, from their own experiences and those of their families, including Romeo’s father who was threatened with deportation despite having lived in the UK since 1959, when he arrived as a four-year-old. 

 

Children of the Windrush by Southbank Centre: Violet Nights

The London Borough of Lambeth – the borough in which the Southbank Centre sits – has strong connection with the Windrush generation, with over 200 of those first arrivals in 1948 initially temporarily housed at Clapham South deep shelter. They were given a reception – the only one they received – by the Mayor of Lambeth; when they went to find work, it was to the employment office on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton they turned. And once they found work, many of them set up home in the area.

On Monday 22 June, 2020, Lambeth Council is asking everyone to celebrate Windrush Day, by joining in unity to sing a universally loved song in honour of the Windrush generation. At 10.27am (the time chosen to represent the 1,027 people on board the Empire Windrush) join us and the people of Lambeth in singing this year’s Song for Windrush, ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’, written by Jimmy Cliff – who would’ve been joining us for Meltdown festival this month – and performed by Desmond Dekker.

 

You Can Get It If You Really Want, Desmond Dekker

 

find out more about Windrush Day

 

Main image: Windrush Square celebrations by Liz Johnson Artur, part of her London is Love project which was displayed across the Southbank Centre in December 2019.

 

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. We all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.

The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

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Imagine the future you want to see: get involved in Refugee Week

Monday 15 June sees the start of Refugee Week; the annual UK-wide festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees. And, had our doors been currently open, we'd be getting set to host a number of events and activities across the week, in partnership with Hoxton-based group Counterpoints Arts.

A leading national organisation on arts, migration and cultureal change, Counterpoints Arts support and produce arts by and about migrants and refugees. Because they believe the arts can inspire social change and enhance inclusion and cultural integration of refugees and migrants, they have made it their mission to ensure refugees' contributions are recognised and welcomed within British arts, history and culture. It's why we're really proud to partner with Counterpoints Arts, both on Refugee Week and other projects throughout the year.

So, whilst we sadly can’t celebrate Refugee Week in the Southbank Centre this year, we asked our friends at Counterpoints Arts for ideas about how you can celebrate it at home.

Women for Refugee Women
Image credit: Women for Refugee Women

‘The issues at the heart of refugee experiences – the importance of home, safety, and welcome – can be understood by children from a very young age. And, young people who are given the opportunity to connect with refugee experiences gain an understanding they will carry with them into adulthood. So, if you’d like to help your children or young family members understand refugee issues, then help is at hand!

‘The first ever virtual edition of Refugee Week takes place 15-21 June. Supported by Schools of Sanctuary and the National Education Union, Refugee Week is usually celebrated in hundreds of schools across the UK, and this year we hope that more children than ever will take part from their homes.

‘The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is ‘imagine’, and we know that young people will lead the way in sharing the future they want to see. There are a wide range of ways children and young people can develop their understanding of displacement and show their support for refugees during the week. Here are a few of our suggestions.’

 

Simple Acts Campaign

recommended for ages 4-12

Simple acts are everyday actions we can all do to stand with refugees and make new connections within our communities. You could tell a joke, read a book or even share a song that has crossed borders. 

Refugee Week: 8 Simple Acts

Whatever you choose, whether you fancy yourself as a stand-up or a singer, make sure you work the theme of 'imagine' into your act. And if you want to choose to read a book, ere are some suggestions for books on refugees and asylum seekrs from the Book Trust to get you started.

books for younger children
books for older children

 

 

Watch and discuss a short film

recommended ages 5+

The best films take us to places we’d never otherwise have gone, introduce us to people we’d never otherwise have met, and spark conversations we wouldn’t otherwise have had. Watching a film together and discussing it afterwards can be a great way to explore migration and refugee experiences. This short animated poem by Kazzum Arts, Help them feel at Home, is a great starting point for younger children.

You’ll find more films and resources for older children, and resources to help discussions around the films, in the Refugee Week Activity Pack

download the Refugee Week activity pack

 

 

Send a message of welcome to a newly-arrived family

recommended for ages 4-11

Coordinated by Norfolk Schools of Sanctuary, A Day of Welcome is a day of solidarity and learning that aims to build a culture of welcome and understanding for refugees and asylum seekers. You can create a piece of artwork to welcome Syrian families who have resettled in the UK and share with Norfolk City of Sanctuary to be included in their digital exhibition. 

take part in A Day of Welcome

 

 

Make a doll’s house and be part of an international virtual exhibition

recommended for ages 5+

The virtual giant dolls’ house project Alone Together invites children of all ages to make their own doll’s house in a shoe box. Led by architect Catja de Haas and supported by Oxfam and the London Festival of Architecture, it’s an opportunity for young people to share their experiences of being stuck at home, whilst also imagining what it is like to lose the place you live. 

To find out more, and for tips on how to make your doll’s house, visit the Giant Dolls’ House website  and don’t forget to share your images and stories before 20 June to be included in the exhibition.

Giant Doll’s House

 

 

Explore poetry and migration tales with Ministry of Stories

recommended for ages 11-16

Migration Tales - poems and raps by young writers by Ministry of Stories

To help young people investigate stories of migration and of those seeking refuge, The Ministry of Stories has released a special writing pack for Refugee Week 2020. Through it young writers will be able to create their own poetry inspired by song lyrics. At the heart of the exercises are the questions: ‘what would make someone leave their home and their loved ones?’ and ‘how do you start to build a new life after that?’

download the writing pack 

 

 

There are many more activities you and your children can take part in during Refugee Week, including virtual events. So be sure to explore the full programme.

Refugee Week events

And, the Refugee Week 2020 Children & Young People’s Activity Pack contains even more links to creative activities, films and learning resources for you to explore.

Refugee Week activity pack

Don’t forget to share how you celebrate Refugee Week on social media using #RefugeeWeek2020.

 

Refugee Week is a partnership project coordinated by Counterpoints Arts.

 

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. We all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.

The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

follow us on Twitter
follow us on Facebook
follow us on Instagram

Southbank Centre’s Book Podcast: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton

Hillary Rodham Clinton & Chelsea Clinton by Southbank Centre's Book Podcast

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton join the scholar Mary Beard to discuss their new book The Book of Gutsy Women: Favourite Stories of Courage and Resilience

In this UK-exclusive event, introduced by Southbank Centre Chief Executive, Elaine Bedell, the pair discuss how and why they chose to write this book, the challenges of working together and how they want men and boys to draw inspiration and gutsiness from these extraordinary women.

In this podcast recorded from their live talk, you’ll hear the stories of some of the women featured in The Book of Gutsy Women, including Juliette Gordon Low, founder of Girl Scouts of the USA, and young Ruby Nell Bridges Hall, the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white Elementary School in Louisiana.

 

The Clintons also explain how they sought to talk about the women featured in a human way, and with a real appreciation for how hard it is to be a woman who stands up against those keeping her down. And they also talk about the challenges facing women politicians, and women in prominent public positions today. How can we get away from the media’s obsession with drawing on the appearance and fashion of female politicians?

 

There are roles assigned to women, and one is the victim role. You can be enraged and passionate and outspoken as a victim, it’s ok. But who wants to live as a victim? So if you try and get out of that role, they’re going to be trying to push you back into it.
Hillary Rodham Clinton

 

The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

follow us on Twitter
follow us on Facebook
follow us on Instagram

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. In difficult times, we all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.

Southbank Centre's Book Podcast: American Dreams in the time of Trump

American Dreams in the time of Trump by Southbank Centre's Book Podcast

In a special edition of Southbank Centre’s Book Podcast, introduced by Head of Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson, we bring together the thoughts and insights of an array of acclaimed American authors, all of whom joined us for the 2018 London Literature Festival and a strand of events ahead of the United States’ midterm elections.

Over the course of this episode you’ll hear from leading novelists Marilynne Robinson and Salman Rushdie, author and professor, Sarah Churchwell, and poet Terrance Hayes on the construct and constraint of modern America under Donald Trump, and the historical currents that brought us here. You’ll even hear a few anecdotes about personal encounters with the 45th president of the United States. 

  

There’s anger everywhere we look. If anger is a form of heartbreak, it just makes the person a bit more human as opposed to something you can kill… we shouldn’t eliminate or destroy an enemy because that might not be the best way to fix it.
Terrance Hayes, poet, on humanising the political divide


The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

follow us on Twitter
follow us on Facebook
follow us on Instagram

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. In difficult times, we all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.

 

Subscribe to Southbank Centre's Book Podcast via your preferred podcast provider to enjoy more interviews and insights from well-known names, including Anna Burns, Khaled Hosseini and Matt Haig.

Carleen Anderson & Kevin Le Gendre on how protest music remains a mighty tool

On 21 May the all-star quartet of Carleen Anderson, Nikki Yeoh, Speech Debelle and Nubya Garcia take to our stage backed by a band featuring the talents of bassist Renell Shaw and drummer Rod Young. Together they will perform interpretations of iconic songs from the time of the 1960s struggle for civil rights through to today.

Titled A Change is Gonna Come this unique concert explores the power of protest songs. Ahead of what is sure to be a memorable performance Carleen Anderson and Kevin Le Gendre explain why, far from being merely a tool of the past, protest music and arts can still have a resonance in today’s fractured world.

Carleen Anderson on The Importance of Artists Expressing Activism in their Work

Although the torch of artists expressing activism has stayed lit throughout the generations, the superficial economic shift in society’s landscape has dimmed its light.

The shouts of ‘No Justice, No Peace’ are countered these days with ‘But there was a Black U.S. American President’, and, ‘What about all the Women that are now included on various platforms’, and, ‘Homosexuals can even get legally married now’. As remarkable as these community progressions are, worldwide disenfranchisement remains in abundance.

Protest songs and poetry are but a commentary and taste of what is still happening in even the supposedly more enlightened countries on earth
Carleen Anderson

Old and new protest songs and poetry are but a commentary and taste of what is still happening in even the supposedly more enlightened countries on earth. Sanctioned murders of certain types of people, politicians advocating hate in their speeches, organised chaos to benefit only the few whilst the majority, mislabelled as the minority, are unjustly assigned lives of despair.

Modern civil rights campaigns carry an ongoing disparity between the anxiousness in the young and left-out that’s imbalanced against the measured strategy of the older and privileged, which continues the rope pull amongst even those championing the same cause. Add to that, in our futuristic environment, the element of anger that can escalate into pandemonium much quicker than ever before.

Art, especially music, can be a band-aid, that plaster to keep things from erupting into immediate bedlam
Carleen Anderson

False rumours routinely spread faster than the reality that has time to take hold. Art, especially music, can be a band-aid, that plaster to keep things from erupting into immediate bedlam. What might have taken hours or days to develop into mayhem in times of yore, is now only a finger-tap away from causing cataclysm within a heartbeat.

Artists, even at the risk of commercial career damage, are paramount in every culture to organise themselves to draw attention to widespread injustices. In doing so, this can galvanize people to change our outdated and unfair pandemic practices. Music, as ever, can be, and is, a mighty tool to show how we are far more the same, than we are different.

This piece first appeared on the website of Sound UK.

read Carleen's piece in full

Black Lives Matter 2018

Kevin Le Gendre on the art and weight of protest music

A Change Is Gonna Come is a timeless melody with one of the great opening lines in pop. It evokes the river, symbol of Mother Earth’s riches, that does not stop running, just like the disenfranchised, those born ‘in a little tent’ on its banks, who look forward to the dawning of a new day, or, more specifically, a brighter tomorrow.

The bold statements of Sam Cooke and Dr. Martin Luther King have retained an inspiring permanence that outweighs the transience of their precious lives
Kevin Le Gendre

When Sam Cooke wrote the song in 1964 the right to vote for people of colour in America, still commonly referred to as Negroes, was yet to be granted. Dr. Martin Luther King jnr, had delivered his landmark I Have A Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the previous year. Both men were slain at a young age, at crucial junctures in the Civil Rights movement, but their bold statements have still retained an inspiring permanence that outweighs the transience of their precious lives.

Protest music is a term that can be applied to all manner of genres, from soul and jazz to folk and rock, but the defining feature of any work that might be deemed the sound of resistance is its awareness of the all-consuming nature of struggle and desire to stay the course, all the way to King’s ‘mountain top’, the promised land of equality.

Creating continuums between one generation and the next, cementing the links of community while smashing the chains of slavery and the shackles of segregation has always been a priority for these exponents of protest music. The recognition of elders who made sacrifices for youngers and fought valiantly for equality on either side of the Atlantic - potently epitomized by Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Claudia Jones and Marcus Garvey - galvanizes countless melodies written against the abuse of power. Acts of remembrance thankfully counter those who would seek to deny real history.

There is a recurrent theme in protest music’s seminal pieces: the look to the future, the peremptory affirmation of what will, rather than might come to pass
Kevin Le Gendre

The tone of protest music can vary enormously from one artist to the next. However there is a recurrent theme in the seminal entries of the canon: the look to the future, the peremptory affirmation of what will, rather than might come to pass. It is as much in Gil Scott Scott-Heron’s stark warning that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as it is Sam Cooke’s soothing promise that A Change Is Gonna Come. Oh yes, it will.

This piece first appeared on the website of Sound UK.

read Kevin’s piece in full

A Change Is Gonna Come: Music for Human Rights

Gifted soul, jazz and rap artists Carleen Anderson, Nikki Yeoh, Speech Debelle and Nubya Garcia joined forces to explore the power of protest songs for A Change Is Gonna Come: Music for Human Rights in our Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday 21 May.

 

Though this event has now passed, Southbank Centre boasts a year-round programme of contemporary music spanning from electro to jazz, blues to dance, and everything in between.

find out more 

Why are women in politics subjected to abuse online? WOW 2018 podcast highlights

In the Line of Fire: Women politicians and online abuse by Southbank Centre: Think Aloud

Online abuse cuts through party lines, affecting women from across the political spectrum. Why have threats of death, rape and other violence become a daily occurrence for many women in politics? What should we do about it? How do you cope if you’re in the line of fire?

Speakers including MPs Jo Swinson, Anna Soubry, Tulip Siddiq, and leader of the Women's Equality Party, Sophie Walker share their experiences.

Please be aware that this podcast contains language which some listeners may find offensive.

The intention is to shut us up. Forever people have been trying to shut up women; and we will not be shut up
Anna Soubry, Conservative MP for Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire

WOW 2019 takes place at Southbank Centre on 8 –9 March, 2019 with talks, events, discussions and workshops for all ages.

find out more

 

Join the WOW conversation on Twitter

#WOWLDN

 

Revisiting 1974, ABBA’s breakthrough year

In 1974 ABBA catapulted into British consciousness as they won the Eurovision Song Contest at The Dome, Brighton. The Swedish pop group would go on to become a household name across the world, and later this month we celebrate their impact and their legacy with our immersive exhibition ABBA Super Troupers.

ABBA were a breath of fresh air to a 1970s Britain mired in a financial crisis epitomised by strike action, the three-day working week, and the effects of The Troubles. To help get a picture of the year in which the Swedish group arrived in Britain, or indeed to relive it all over again, take a look at our timeline.

 

ABBA Super Troupers, our immersive exhibition of the Swedish pop sensations’ takeover of 1970s Britain, runs from 14 December 2017 to 29 April 2018

book now

Listen to the best of London Literature Festival 2017

London Literature Festival 2017 Highlights by Southbank Centre

Autumn 2017 saw a wealth of literary and oratory talent descend on Southbank Centre for the London Literature Festival. This podcast delivers a snapshot of the packed three-week programme, with memorable moments from some of the headline talks featuring Hillary Rodham Clinton, Philip Pullman, Tom Hanks and Rt Hon. Gordon Brown, as well as a unique insight to Poetry International in the festival’s 50th year.

London Literature Festival is a celebration of literature in all its forms; poetry, novels, non-fiction and spoken word. Last year the festival centred around the theme of a ‘world on the brink’ in which we gave special focus to writers and authors who address the great challenges the world is facing at the moment, and utilise literature as a space in which we explore the potential for reimagining it, and the future.

In this podcast you’ll hear Rodham Clinton’s thoughts on ‘fake news’, why Pullman never forgot about ‘Pale Gas’, how Hanks’ parents finally found what they were looking for, and you’ll hear a former Prime Minister describe the moment Amy Winehouse told Nelson Mandela he had much in common with her husband.

...this statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square; his hands outstretched with a vision of the future, his finger pointing upwards in defiance, saying no injustice shall last forever, and courage and sacrifice in the name of freedom will not be in vain, and that is the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
Rt Hon. Gordon Brown, speaking during Nelson Mandela: The Presidential Years

London Literature Festival may have now finished, but our literary and talks programme continues to deliver fascinating events throughout the year.

see the programme

Can theatre help us understand the culture of surveillance and fear?

Ever feel like you’re being watched? Quite often there’s a reason for that. Particularly when you’re online (hello). Dr. Andrew Westerside, Co-Artistic Director of Proto-type Theater describes how our increasingly nonchalant compliance with outside access to our online life led to the creation of their performance piece A Machine they’re Secretly Building, which comes to Southbank Centre this month.

A Machine They're Secretly Building
Image courtesy of Fenia Kotsopoulou, Proto-Type Theater

Making an hour-long performance that tackles global mass-surveillance head-on might be the single most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do in theatre.

In 2015, as part of Proto-type Theater (along with my collaborators Rachel Baynton, Gillian Lees, and visual artist, animator and designer Adam York Gregory), I started to make A Machine they’re Secretly Building: a performance that grew from our shared feelings of outrage and disbelief at the mass-surveillance of private citizens.

Even for people actively interested in the avalanche of documents and memos unearthed in the wake of Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks, at the core of them lay a very trivial obstacle: they were all incredibly boring. A dizzying amount of impenetrable jargon, code-words, numbers, neologisms, cross-references and countless redactions that made unpacking and unpicking their magnitude a colossal task.

Our job, as theatre makers, seemed not to be one in which we ought to give the documents a context, or a fiction to breathe in, but one in which we had to translate and expose the facts, to present them in raw, human terms. With people. Together. In a room.

The information, we realised, was supposed to be boring, boring and impenetrable by design. To kill the interest, as well as the conversation.

Even with the complexity of the facts aside, how could we begin to understand  global mass-surveillance, culturally as well as theatrically, in a contemporary context? We can (and should) easily forgive ourselves for rapidly scrolling through (or even outright ignoring) the pages and pages of terms & conditions that come as part and parcel of the tools that keep us moving and together. Across Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Skype, DropBox, Twitter, and countless other services, we’ve created a network of information and sociability that’s shrunk the world down into a small rectangle we keep in our pocket. And, as we catalogue our digital self in near real-time through images, statuses, running routes and dating preferences, so too have we made normal the idea of surveillance to such an extent that self-surveillance is a habitual part of twenty-first century life.

For a while, people have been tossing around George Orwell’s 1984 as a model for understanding the current surveillance environment, but really it’s a toxic combination of 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the drug of choice is ingeniously embedded within the mechanisms of surveillance itself
Sarah Bay-Cheng, writing in Performance Research: a journal of the performing arts, in 2014

In short, if we want to get involved in this new world, we’re going to have to get used to being watched. It’s a trade, then. An exchange. That’s why we ignore those T&C’s. But what we didn’t know, before the Snowden revelations, was the horrifying extent of the trade – what we were really giving away.

We didn’t know that people had openly lied, some under oath, about the illegal bulk collection of our (your, my) data. Our emails, photos, bank balances, location histories, messages, call data. All harvested, all stored. Just in case. We didn’t know that the UK and US security services were taking, and storing, images from every single live Yahoo! Webchat around the world, every five minutes, for at least six years. We didn’t know that in the UK our internet history is available without a warrant to a staggering fifty-eight different agencies, including the Royal Navy and the Food Standards Agency. We didn’t know. We didn’t sign up for that.

But now we do know, and still the tide doesn’t seem to be turning. Why? How is it that in late-2017, a full four years after the Snowden revelations, there has been next-to-no legal action, prosecution, or parliamentary reform with regards to mass-surveillance?

A Machine they're Secretly Building
Photograph courtesy of Adam York Gregory, Proto-Type Theater

Quite possibly the single most influential factor, and something A Machine… doesn’t shy away from, is the leverage afforded to the security services by the atrocities of 9/11. Of course, one can genuinely sympathise with a government that wants more tools at their disposal to avert such a tragic loss of life. But what began with the US Stellar Wind programme and Patriot Act in the immediate aftermath of September 2001, as emergency measures, was also the opening of a door just wide enough to allow in the most potent and malleable of human emotions; fear.

In a turbulent age of 24-hour news, global political friction and unrest, the re-emergence of the far right across Europe, Brexit, and the ever-present threat of an act of international terror (the UK’s threat level hasn’t dropped below ‘substantial’ in the last eleven years, and is mostly ‘severe’ or ‘critical’), it’s easy to see how ready we are to welcome the insidious machine of surveillance in with open arms. But look closely, and the world we’re sold doesn’t quite match up with the facts.

You may have already heard impassioned defences of mass-surveillance that begin or end with the argument that ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide’. The logic is easy to follow: good, kind, thoughtful folk like you and me – aside from perhaps some minor misdemeanours – pose no threat to national safety. They’re not looking for us; we’re the haystack the needles are hiding in. If it keeps us safe, if it keeps us alive and well, why should it matter?

The answer is quite simple. If you think you’re being watched, your behaviour changes. Over time, the possibility for revolution and revolt, for protest and dissidence, vanishes. Over time, the ability to even think of a different state of affairs, a different world, vanishes, too (a kind of ‘non-thinking’ that Henry Giroux terms disimagination).

As a small collection of citizens who happen to also make theatre, we’re not happy that our government is and has been indiscriminately spying on us. We want you to know what’s happening. What we need to realise, collectively, is that once we’ve let state-sanctioned mass-surveillance in, it’s very very difficult to ask it to leave.

A Machine they’re Secretly Building isn’t a performance that has all the answers, but it is, I hope, one that starts to ask the right questions.


 

Proto-type Theater’s A Machine they’re Secretly Building is a performance piece that charts a course from the Top Secret secrets of WWI intelligence through to 9/11, the erosion of privacy, Edward Snowden and the terror of a future that might already be upon us. It was performed at Southbank Centre, in Royal Festival Hall’s Blue Room, in November 2017.

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Listen to Nelson Mandela: The Presidential Years

Nelson Mandela: The Presidential Years by Southbank Centre

In October 2017, to celebrate the launch of Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, Mandla Langa’s biography of Nelson Mandela, a host of famous names from the world of activism, politics and journalism gathered on our Royal Festival Hall stage to present readings from the book, and a discussion on Mandela's life and his remarkable impact.

 

In this podcast from the event, introduced by UN Special Envoy for Global Education, and former British Prime Minister, Rt Hon Gordon Brown, a high profile panel, chaired by journalist Jon Snow, discuss the legacy of Nelson Mandela in a troubled world.

On the panel are Mandla Langa, the South African novelist, poet and biographer of Mandela; Sello Hatang, Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation; Lord Peter Hain, the former Labour MP and anti-apartheid campaigner; and the American-British playwright and broadcaster Bonnie Greer. And, framing the discussion, we hear actor Adrian Lester deliver readings from Langa's book.

 

Mandela represents what we lack, and what we’re fast losing. Humility defines itself at a time when we lack human solidarity; instead of building bridges we are looking for more options for walls
Sello Hatang, Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation


This event took place at the Southbank Centre as part of the 2017 London Literature Festival.

 

The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

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