How Do We Relate to Our Past – And How Does Our Past Affect Our Social Interactions?

The above question frequently reoccurs within my art practice. While examining the various relations between past and present, one of my focuses has been the role and relevance of traditions in our postmodern society. The word »tradition« by definition refers to the past and its continuation; or in cases its discontinuation.

To reference Fragaszy & Perry, editors of The Biology of Traditions publication, tradition, in general terms, describes a relatively lasting behavioral practice shared among two or more people within a group and mainly sustained by its transmission from generation to generation. A fundamental attribute of a tradition is the relation to its geographic locality, which defines the context frame for such behavioral practices to develop. It is generally understood that these behavioral practices, in their majority, originate from the requirements of any given group has in order to ensure its survival, obtain social coherence, and create a structure for development and expansion. Therefore, they can be characterized as vernacular practices attributed to that specific group, expanding from the formation of a common language to daily arbitrary routines such as culinary and stylistic practices, etc.

However, since traditions have been integral to the topological and sociological imperatives of that specific time and space, how do they endure the changes occurring to these two variables? It is not debatable that traditions are fundamental knowledge base for every society, as sociologist Edward Shils argues; however, the practical use of these traditions in a contemporary society is questionable. As early as the eighteenth century, the notion of tradition and its corollary to its contemporary societies has sparked countless debates among scholars. Traditions have been thought to be outdated, restrictive to progress; yet fundamental to social and national identity and a tool of social curbing, unity, and empowerment amid others, depending on the context in which these traditions are utilized and presented.

»The rapid changes and developments of our postmodern society leave no room to form new traditions or follow the old in our daily routine.«

According to Handler and Linnekin’s article »Tradition, Genuine or Spurious,« when a vernacular practice becomes »traditional« is a phenomenon classified by its ascribed meaning rather than its objectification, but to quote Dr. Stuart Hall, »If the world has to be made to mean, then how do certain meanings get privileged over others?« In other words, what meaning do we assign to certain traditions, preserving them instead of others? And what is the rationale to conserve such former practices, which have become temporally stagnant and incompatible to contemporary life? A plausible answer, according to cultural identity theory, is the relation traditions have to our identity. As obvious as this connection may seem, and although in many cases we identify ourselves through our association to our past, our ancestors, their histories, and practices, the superficiality of this association should be scrutinized.

Identity in the postmodern society has adopted a more fluid and temporary status subjective to a constant shifting of contexts. Movement of populations, export of culture, access and exposure to global information, the creation of a universal market and technological development has opened access to a multitude of identities and to a rather international way of living. The rapid changes and developments of our postmodern society leave no room to form new traditions or follow the old in our daily routine. To adapt within these shifting conditions of living, requires flexibility in the way we identify ourselves. According to Dr. Hall, we are now experiencing the postmodern conception of identity, which is more temporal and less stable that the former conception of a sociological subject. The sociological subject, due to the growing complexity of the world highlighted the lack of self-sufficiency and the interwoven relation to others and was expressed through group behaviors, ethics, traditions, topologies and physiologies, which identified the individual of what one is and what not.

Today, the social stability of a traditional world in which behaviors and practices had certain forms has been replaced by a faster-changing, mobile society with less time to adjust to a certain group model and offering the individual more platforms upon which to expand and develop. However, accessing different social platforms and cultural systems leads to adopting more than one identity, in order to be able to operate within them.

According to many scholars such as poststructuralist philosopher J. F. Lyotard and sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, this multitude of identities and narratives has led to a postmodern identity crisis. The lack of belonging and stability of the self have become disorienting to the individual and in many cases the solidity and stagnation of the past offer a solid ground from which to operate. Cultural references such as traditions, and topological definitions such as borders and historical heritage, are used as nominal references to the sociological subject of identity I mentioned above. They offer social structure and political processes; a canon for identification by relation.

»Traditions are used as symbols of unification and simultaneously the indication of heterogenesis between groups within social environments, highlighting their cultural differences and how they conceptualize both change and continuity within them.«

This canonization of identity construction, in which culture and therefore traditions play a significant role, occupies the core of all social groups and dictates their initiation and coherence, since it is the structure that organizes the materials from which these groups derive. These groups expand from small regular social gatherings to institutions, organizations, educational systems, political parties, religions, communities, nations, etc. The application of this canonical process to the individual’s daily life is manifested through the institutionalization of culture. We are taught how to own our past and the way we own our past dictates how we live and create social relationships.

Traditions are used as symbols of unification and simultaneously the indication of heterogenesis between groups within social environments, highlighting their cultural differences and how they conceptualize both change and continuity within them. This abstract narrative of traditions can be used to elevate, advertise, and export a culture – in many cases having an element of recognition especially to suppressed cultures in the past and also bring momentary benefits amongst other – or/and to dichotomize and differentiate people from each other without having more substantial use than a nominal attribution.

How do we as individuals relate to our traditions and what do we define as ours? This is the question I exploring through my own practice. I research and revive past forgotten traditions and present them to the relevant social groups they refer to via art projects. What relations are created by the revival of an unknown or forgotten tradition to the group it is related to? What role can it play in their identity and how relevant can it be? What is the meaning attributed to this tradition since it has been presented to them from an outsider? These are the dynamics I am interested in examining.