Ethics and Aesthetics of Encountering the Other: New Frameworks for Engaging with Difference

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Education


This international research network asks: How do people of conflicting worldviews, memories and future visions encounter each other? Cultural, civic and educational organisations are expected to create a platform for such encounters and their public value is increasingly assessed on how well they reflect societal diversity in their core activity, outreach and governance. While some improvement on diversity measures, such as gender, age, ethnicity or disability, is evident within these sectors, less is known on what meaningful engagement across and within these categories looks like, why and how it matters and what it takes to foster it. This is an urgent question in the face of disconcerting societal tendencies around the world: the coarsening of public discourse in increasingly divided societies, the rise of political and military activism fuelled by hostility and violence towards the other, or the fast-spreading epidemic of loneliness and mental illness across and within generations and social strata. This network is based on the recognition that genuine engagement with difference of any kind is necessary for building peaceful, sustainable and healthy communities. It also acknowledges, however, that success on diversity measures alone does not guarantee meaningful encounters with those who are not like 'us'. Such engagement requires effort, can be difficult to bring about, and sharing the same space is a necessary but insufficient condition for it to occur. The Network addresses this challenge by shifting the theoretical focus from diversity as a social category to difference as a quality that defines every human being. This shift implies that human interactions of any kind are meetings with difference. They are not made meaningful by emphasising sameness, but by exercising an ethical commitment to preserving difference while making a genuine contact. How individuals and communities practise this encounter with 'the other' across diverse contexts of human activity can have profound consequences for addressing some of the global societal conflicts. The Network brings together international artists, linguists and philosophers to examine aesthetic and ethical dimensions of communal meaning making across geographical boundaries and domains of social life: in music and dance rehearsal rooms, in museums and art galleries, in theatres, markets, service encounters, schools. We will study existing research and experiential evidence of these interactions and examine what genuine encounters with difference look like and what it takes to enable them. The resulting theoretical and methodological frameworks will advance inquiry across academic disciplines and creative practices. The practical guidelines will support public institutions in the UK and internationally in their commitment not only to reach diverse communities but to become catalysts for genuine encounters across divides of any kind. More generally, through engaging with one another's disciplines, cultural contexts, existing research data and ways of working, the Network will develop new conceptual frameworks, analytical approaches and practical proposals for researching and living in complex, changing conditions.
The Network will be organised in two one-day seminars, a public assembly and a dissemination lab to consolidate Network outputs. The seminars will include short data-led provocations, keynotes, experiential sessions and moderated conversations. The public assembly will reach out to a wide range of stakeholders, including arts organisations, educational charities, local authorities, health and mental wellbeing agencies and social care sector. The material will be disseminated through creative outputs (interactive website and a digital ethnography blog led by a Doctoral Researcher in Residence), social media and professional workshops. The Network will facilitate the development of new partnerships and inform future inquiry into global challenges of societal conflict.

Planned Impact

The Network recognizes a significant potential benefit for a wide range of arts, education and public sector organisations, communities and individuals nationally and internationally. Impact will be created by working collaboratively with partners, intermediaries and participants and by developing an effective communications plan throughout and beyond the life of the project. The Network's impact is embedded in its infrastructure and carried out through named partners' involvement in the shaping of the project's agenda from the outset. Opera North is interested in theorizing and enhancing their practice of crossing cultural boundaries in their artistic collaborations and in harnessing opportunities that their Theatre of Sanctuary status affords. The outcomes of this project will inform their approach to working with refugees and asylum seekers and will also feed directly into their future artistic and outreach work. Leeds Museums and Galleries, as a cultural organization whose NPO status is subject to ongoing assessment by the Arts Council England, also has a direct stake in the project. Their involvement will aide their ambition to respond to ACE's initiative 'Creative Case for Diversity'. They will use their participation in the Network to develop an action plan for creating museums that both represent and meaningfully engage with diverse audiences. International beneficiaries in the arts, culture and heritage sector will be targeted through the work of core international Network members. For example, Fischer will use the Network outcomes to inform his creative practice of engaging with diverse cultural traditions and his pedagogical practice of educating for collaborative musicianship. Dyck, a visual artist in the Pasifika (Tongan) tradition, has strong connections with museums, art galleries and schools in New Zealand. She will use her Network experience to inform her public engagement across these partnerships. Poton Theatre Company, a multi-award-winning community-based Slovak theatre company, reaches around 6,000 users per year, which includes artists and the general public. The Network will inform the Company's ambition to address urgent societal challenges through its artistic output and form a basis for researching a new production. The Network's impact on public and civic sectors will be advanced through involvement of key speakers with considerable influence and public profile beyond academia. For example, Kenan Malik, a journalist, broadcaster and author with national and global reach, writes regularly for national media on the themes of this Network. Lisa Dwan is an internationally acclaimed actress, director, writer and a regular speaker at public events and festivals. Both Jonathan Dove, an English composer of internationally acclaimed operas, and Rosie Kay, an award winning choreographer and artistic director of Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, have a strong track record of involving schools, NGOs and communities in their work. Given the high public profile and engagement of these and other participants, it is expected that they will shape the Network's outcomes and that these will, in turn, be reflected in their own creative practices and in their engagement with national and international audiences through public speaking, teaching, print and social media. The Public Assembly will extend the Network's reach as well as shape its agenda through the input of a range of representatives of anticipated beneficiaries, including educational charities, local authorities, refugee organisations, health and mental wellbeing agencies, social care and care for the elderly sector and NGOs. We will offer up to 10 travel bursaries to invite stakeholders' participation in the public assembly. The communication strategy will be managed via the project's website with dedicated sections for creative and educational sectors and through social media, press office engagement, teaching and professional development workshops.


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