Saturday, July 24, 2010

Culture, made in Dubai By: Hisham Wyne

Cities only exist because they can produce better than individuals. Urban theorists have recognised there are costs to people riding the conveyor belt of development to an environment where they get packed in like sardines.

Infrastructural costs rise, as do those of provision. Take Dubai – our city has spent millions providing infrastructure for the million plus denizens calling it home.

Cities form due to economies of scale, because the cost of making goods decreases as more individuals band together. In this instance, size really does matter. A city thrives when its production is greater than its consumption, creating more than is needed to sustain it. This process of creation, however, is changing in both form and complexity.

Industrial economics rely on physical goods that Dubai as a trade hub handles well. The service economy is catered through imported talent bolstered by local expertise. But the knowledge and idea economies rely on ‘cultural goods’ of a more nuanced nature. These include film, television, new media, games, publishing, advertising, books, verse, visual and performing arts.

As a city, we excel at the large, the vast, and the macro. Our charge is lead by massive developers, big creative and media houses, and millions in infrastructural investment. Our investment, and economic output is fairly obvious. The city has been excellent at attracting extraneous talent, usually affiliated to big brand names from the world over. CNN and BBC rub shoulders with CNBC and Reuters in the city’s free zones.

Yet, some of the world’s most compelling and relevant local content is created not by large firms but by independent creative spirits who sense a disquiet with the world and set about doing something about it – be it through paint, sculpture, film, performance, verse or prose. Cultural goods are surprisingly often seeded by individuals with a creative streak. But these producers require space, helpful services, and a structure that lets them elide the travails of the nine to five should they choose. Creative content producers can be highly idiosyncratic and the cultural goods they produce more so. In many instances, they are also small, nimble and relatively unfettered by the inertia of larger businesses.

Dubai is seeing the first instances of independent creative cliques. An eclectic collective of filmmakers behind the Levity: Zero Error, the UAE’s first sci-fi computer graphic film, represented the city at the Cannes Film Festival. Local artistes are being selected to work on international projects such as the Ralph Lauren Art Star initiative. Dubai’s Al Quoz area has become an impromptu incubator of creativity, with industrial warehouses re-arranged to form art galleries, concert houses and collaborative workspaces. The city has its first student radio station. Add to that content portals for music and human rights, and a drive towards the collaborative use of available space. Factor in too numerous free poetry recitals, workshops and plays. Dubai is getting into the habit of producing cultural goods, and frequently at that.

Yet there is almost a feeling that these advances are in spite of the system, not because of it. We’ve catered well to the large and iconic. It is now time to ensure the nascent grass roots content creation initiatives are given fair chance.

A number of facilitators may ease this passage. Ideas must collide in physical space to reach finished form; holding them in one’s head is no longer sufficient. More available space, with easier rents and faster procedures may give people avenues to express creative form. A greater push to recognise content creators and afford them needed support less reliant on bureaucratic whimsy is a possibility. Ready grants for plausible content, and the ability to set up collaborative projects without exorbitant licensing costs could be explored.

Dubai’s future fortunes are inextricably tied to the tenacity of its smaller businesses and autonomous creators. Much has been done, almost against the grain, but there remains the compelling possibility of so much more. Cultural content is an essential part of the urban economy; the likes of London, Toronto, New York, Sydney and even Singapore have realised that cultural goods attract tourism, can be traded, generate real wealth and improve citizens’ quality of life.

Dubai is already the financial, trade and hospitality hotspot for the Middle East region. It can easily become the region’s finest cultural Petri dish, incubating content that is indigenous, relevant and representative as opposed to imported wholesale. We’re on the way, but not there yet.

Hisham Wyne is a columnist, radio commentator and copywriter fascinated by global socio-politics as well as local arts, culture and community activities

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