The Planet Solaris of D&I

The planet Solaris: A world that mirrors your reality. It projects a living, breathing replica of your wants, memories, and perceptions. It is reality if you want to believe it.

You are sat in a meeting. A leadership meeting in an organisation or institution in which a slide appears on the director presentation to their department. It is the commitment to diversity, to race equality, to inclusion. Words and phrases are used such as ‘acknowledging our privilege’, ‘allyship’ and even ‘intersectionality’. There is an intense energy between everyone in this space gauged by the nodding heads to the various iterations of ‘we prioritize diversity and inclusion’ here. The director speaking is intensely looking at you with the utterance of this statement. Ready to see that nod of the head and smile of encouragement. You look around the room (or zoom), and see a representation of the dominant culture, and at once feeling ‘hyper-minoritized’, out of place yet the entire language and focus at that moment is on addressing the lack of diversity. It is an out-of-body experience where you are unsure of what reality even is. Is this a space for you? This feeling, this experience is commonplace in many workplace cultures, the higher you travel up — but is particularly potent, versed, and confident within the arts.

The arts and cultural sector have fine-tuned a language of inclusion, a professionalism of diversity and inclusion that is as expansive as it is static. They have created a living organism of professionalised diversity and inclusion (D&I), a planet Solaris. I think to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem. An astronaut is sent to investigate the troubles on a research mission that has been studying the planet Solaris. When he arrives, phantoms of his past appear — lifelike. Living replicas of reality. At the end of the film, the astronaut seems to be at home, greeting his once ailing father but as a camera zooms out, he has in fact embraced the planet Solaris. Embracing the replica of reality. In the planet Solaris of D&I that has been created in the institutionalised professionalism of the art space, a moulding, responsive replica to any conversation, challenge or critique to discrimination, exclusion and racial equality is created. A responsive replica that is so alive that many enacting the forms and claims of care to address discrimination or inequality believe it with their whole chest. They choose to live on Solaris.

So, when any claim or challenge to the dominant culture on exclusion, racialisation and cultural supremacy is brought to the organisation, the planet Solaris of D&I draws on an organisational professionalism that will say ‘we take all of those aspects seriously and we are going to address it in the following ways’. From trainings to reviews, from networks to taskforces, energy is materialised to show and prove how seriously the issue is being addressed. The language of inclusion comes thick and fast, overwhelming any critique into thinking ‘this time it sounds serious’. But as a soon as you step back, look closely, track change and particularly look for accountability, you see an illusion — a language of inclusion, reality of exclusion. The trajectory of change is nothing but a reflective process to re-invest in the dominant culture.

Yes, the above ‘language of inclusion, reality of exclusion’ experience is versed in many professionalisms and institutions — and feels familiar in many sectors, but it is the arts and culture space that has mastered the replica of representation, race, and class equality. Whilst other sectors cynicism of professionalism is always visible in many attempts engaging with diversity and inclusion, the arts and cultural institutionalised professionalism holds court in attempting to feel honest. It is represented in the PANIC! report of 2018[1], in which the arts and cultural space is one of the most underrepresented sectors in Britain in relation to societies demographics, yet it is a sector which is the most ‘left’ leaning politically from those who work within it. A liberal arts elitism of do-gooder saviourism that feeds the planet Solaris they choose to work within. It is not just in the UK context, it is a globalised phenomenon that these art space shells, temples born in the colonial matrix of power, have become occupied by the enlightened decolonial colonial class settled in their equality Solaris.

Do not be Fooled. This is firstly an address to those working within this space, outside of the dominant that may fall into the planet Solaris of D&I. A belief that this network is going to create change, this task force is going to be radically productive, this new strategy on diversity is going to right the wrongs of the art, culture, and museum institutions birth right of exclusion. This faith in achieving a radical dream of change will not happen — it reflects your dreams, and the professional structures discursively mimicking a care of address — and whilst that may be comforting, you must realise it is a planet Solaris. It is not real; it is a replica. There is infinite empathy to those who have accepted the reality of this replica dialogue of diversity as a mode of survival, progression, and sustainability within these spaces. Maybe it is the only way to last within these spaces and conversations is to believe in the planet Solaris of D&I, just as the astronaut at the end of the film.

A second address is to those part of the dominant culture. Who are knowingly or unknowingly part of the terraforming of the arts sector, to turn the confidently exclusive, canonistic world it has historically been, into this planet of hollow inclusion. You must step outside your professional selves — disturb the consensus culture that drives this language of inclusion. This means recognising the toxicity of managerialism that comes with dealing with institutional diversity. A process that Sara Ahmed [2], and others have documented as being stifling, harm inducing and corrupt in its attempts to address exclusion — on a level of equitable change. Your commitment to what is perceived to be necessary professionalism is the foundations of this illusion, this Solaris of D&I. You must break your professionalism to align yourself to culture change outside of management structures. Break your professionalism to break the illusion — for yourself and for the excluded. This may feel scary and reading a ‘guide to allyship’ may feel a mighty dusting of the conscious, but this is exactly the way the imitation of inclusion is propped up.

Break professionalism to agitate the dominant culture to create true equitable change.

[1] Orian Brook, David O’Brien, and Mark Taylor, Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, 2018 <www.barbican.org.uk/whats-> [accessed 17 March 2020].

[2] Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2012).

Researcher in art, culture, community, religion and the art museum