Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The notion of European Capitals of Culture by Hatto Fischer

The Berlin discussions about whether or not European Capitals of Culture are able, and if so how do they contribute to a culture of sustainability, comes at a crucial juncture in time.

Europe is going through a critical phase. For one, there are the state deficits of Greece, Ireland and Portugal already challenging the Euro. Then, the economic crisis has exposed an illusion everyone had up to now, namely the European Union may not be united, culturally speaking, but at least it is economically unified e.g. since the 'Steel and Coal' beginning to one common currency, namely the Euro. But without a common accounting system and a single system of economic governance, it means that debts are still dealt with as 'sovereign ones'. It underlines the pseudo-independence of the member states who wish to safeguard their interests and privileges, and this despite having adopted a common currency.

Looking back in history, a much beloved metaphor used to describe failed European politics can be applied again: all attempts after the failed ratification of the EU Constitutional Treaty, including the Lisbon Treaty, is mere wall paper for it is unable to cover up the cracks in the wall. The anguish about the gap between citizens and Europe can be heard especially in the outcry of Jürgen Habermas who uses Enzensberg's expression when giving his essays the title "Ach! Europa."

Re-nationalisation has set in as early as 1999. Now new pressures from a global side are added upon specific member states like Italy, Greece, Spain. More and more people are forced to flee to safety since their places have become war zones like Libya, but what has been the case in Afghanistan especially after 911. Nowadays even the principal of open borders brought about by the Schengen agreement is being challenged. Denmark is the latest to join those who seek to protect what they gained from a global economy. That is the strange thing: exports are needed, but then it is thought the gains are best consumed only in one's own safe garden. That is another dangerous illusion.

To all of this are added the unfolding of events in Japan since March 11th . First struck by an earthquake, then a Tsunami, came the horror of nuclear fall out, and this in a country which has experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the explosion of the first nuclear bombs. The danger of radiation when using nuclear energy is a well known, but one which has often been suppressed or ignored. But suddenly Chernobyl reappears in public consciousness after what took place in Fukushima. Again it raises serious doubts about the way business is being conducted, especially if safety regulators are in one and the same boat with the operators, and altogether the nuclear energy lobby being one 'village' which remains tight lipped as to what is really going on. And by ignoring safety standards is meant doing business without regard for the impact upon human life and the environment.

All these fresh doubts can be linked directly to what proponents of sustainable development have always maintained, namely as Oleg Koefoed would cite in his introductory paper, what shall be handed over to future generation? What future is offered aside from an unmanageable waste called contaminated uranium? How to restore landscapes once ruined by new freeways and super highways? How to sustain an economy, if people feel no longer respected and human experiences no longer count? What to do when quite other qualifications than in terms of human kindness are asked for?

Aside from wishing to thematize the question of sustainability in view of these extreme cases challenging the survival of mankind on this planet, the discussion takes place as well for some very specific reasons. They are linked to recent experiences made with candidate cities for the title of European Capital of Culture, in particular Wroclaw 2016 and Sonderborg 2017.

A prime reason for meeting in Berlin May 16 and 17 was that Wroclaw 2016 planned a conference on the theme 'the politics of small things' for the end of May, 2011. However, this conference had to be postponed. Wroclaw 2016 experienced too much pressure to finalize the bid, so that they could not devote as much time as needed to prepare the conference. This is to be understood as the time needed to communicate with the people who have been invited, in order to clarify with them everything from time of arrival to departure, but also as to what would be their contribution. Since they risked to end up sitting just on the fences and wait for the outcome, the timing of the conference made anyhow little sense, namely to hold it at the end of May. For one, the bid of Wroclaw has to be handed in by May 18th, hence a conference set for 19th and 20th of May would not have any influence upon the bid. Moreover, since the bid cannot be discussed in public, that is prior to the presentation in front of the jury, the bid could not be even actively supported. Instead they would have to wait together with Wroclaw and four other Polish cities as to who will get the title for 2016. The jury shall convene sometimes in June.

To explain briefly the selection procedure of European Capitals of Culture selecting two for every year since 2000, there are in Poland for 2016 besides Wroclaw in the final round the Polish cities Gdansk, Warszawa, Lublin and Katowice. Alone this feature of competition between various cities has been creating a new perspective as to what cities hope to gain from being designated to be European Capital of Culture for one year. The selection is supposed to be done by an independent jury which is comprised of six national and seven European experts. Once the city has received the designation, it has five years to prepare and then can carry subject to certain monitoring and evaluation methods devised by the European Commission the title for the one specific year. This is signalled by awarding the Melina Mercouri prize in memory of this incredible woman who had initiated together with Jack Lang the idea to have a city be for one year European Capital of Culture. Since Athens as first city in 1985 a lot has happened to transform the earlier concept into something else. It may be best described as to what Bob Palmer calls the danger of ECoC cities becoming for that year a huge cultural industry. There has also been a shift away from just being a city to incorporate entire regions, Ruhr 2010 a prime example most recently.

As to the wish by cities to receive this designation, one indication is how many apply for the title. Before the final round consisting of 5 cities, there were 16 cities competing in Poland and twenty in Spain which is also selecting a city for 2016. A similar situation existed when Germany selected its European Capital of Culture for 2010. There were at first about 20 cities in the race. The city which was finally selected was then no longer Essen alone, but Ruhr 2010 was comprised of 53 cities. It marks a trend to be more closely observed since it means to functionalize culture for forging new economic viable regions. That notion can be traced back to what Phil Cooke interpreted as the reason for certain regions to be more competitive than others, especially if the people and companies in that region share the same values and everyone wishes to do altogether good, i.e. quality work. Such a common interest can bring about what Phil Cooke called aptly a 'culture of excellence'. It would allow companies to outsource work to smaller units who were in turn more innovative and therefore give the entire region a cultural homogeneity as known to be the case in Baveria and in Baden Württemberg.

This tendency to functionalise culture can take place, of course, at urban level. Genoa successfully converted itself from the ugly duckling into a beautiful swan by seizing upon this special year of being European Capital of Culture to finally revamp its harbor site. Likewise Liverpool struggled and succeeded according to their own reports in leaving behind the negative image of a down trodden, good for nothing stale habor city to be a vibrant, hustle and bustle modern meeting place for culture and conferences, researchers and sports fan alike, and still not forget the Beatles who had put that city on the map besides its football team.

But to return to Wroclaw, the topic for the planned, but then postponed conference had an appeal of some sort. The focus on small things which can have a huge impact in the end is something all toy with when repeatedly frustrated by a society resisting any positive change, never mind substantial reform. But it did not capture entirely the issues in need to be faced in the twenty-first century. Thus once it was known that the conference would be postponed, and yet many people already prepared to come together, Oleg Koefoed made this interesting proposal. He asked for a fresh approach best done by posing the question of European Capitals of Culture being able to contribute to a culture of sustainability, and to meet half way, that is in Berlin. Indeed, some come from Greece and Cyprus while others from Denmark.

Oleg Koefoed's background in cultura 21 was not the only reason for his proposal. He had become involved as a result of my own brief encounter in November and December 2010 with Sonderborg 2017 in the saga of European Capitals of Culture. Knowing Oleg Koefoed to be an action philosopher, I asked him last November 2010, if he would not be interested in expressing some viewpoints? I wanted to find out how he would see the chances of Sonderborg and region to make it for the title. Sonderborg stands only in competition with the Danish city Aarhus for the title 2017, a year when it is also the turn of Cyprus to select a city.

Already that sweep of a glance first at Sonderborg, then at Wroclaw can tell quite a different story as to where various member states of Europe stand with regards to the question of sustainability. Sonderborg 2017 has aligned itself clearly with a vision to have an environment free of carbon emissions by 2028, whereas Wroclaw has an almost traditional understanding of sustainability, namely what shall be retained after the one year is over? Already this will mark a difference in the discussion. It is one thing to develop in a direction which promises to save energy and reduce carbon emissions, quite another if the question is posed but which newly created cultural institutions shall be around years after the one year of implementation is over. This difference might be explained by East-West contrasts in terms of development experienced over the past twenty years or more precisely since 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, but not only. All the more reason to initiate this new discussion in Berlin to find a pivot point for the years ahead.

Basically the question of sustainability comes down to what kind of economy one wants. A part of this is the so-called business ethics, and as extension thereof a special culture. This can cover as much norms developed by those who deem themselves to be insiders e.g. those working for Wall Street or in the City of London as it might be a justification of everything not deemed exactly legal, but necessary since this is how business works e.g. offering bribes to gain the contract or lobbying to secure tax exemptions. On the surface it touches as well upon what enterprises deem as being necessary to keep face, in order to do business with a 'clean' image. Not surprisingly even oil companies have adopted for their advertisement campaigns already such slogans like Green or 'clean' energy as if they are concerned about the impact upon the environment. In the meantime, the new priority given to alternative energy sources has prompted, for instance, more investments in wind parks whether now on land or of shore.

Speaking of extensions out onto the water, Oleg Koefoed spoke interestingly enough in his blue print for a future dynamic Sonderborg region about the need for people to reconnect to the sea. He believes this connection has been lost during the age of industrialisation, and never regained ever since, even if many take to pleasure boats. Uncertainty prevails since no one seems to know what future development shall entail. The Sonderborg region has to face already the problem that out of the young people who leave the region to study and to work elsewhere, and primarily in Copenhagen, Hamburg or Berlin, only two out of ten might return.

It poses a huge problem. Indeed, every enterprise seeks highly qualified and skilled labor. Danfoss in the Sonderborg region with 30 000 employees world wide wants, therefore, to encourage ever more so young people to come to the region or else stay, and in so doing become interested in technology and innovation. Danfoss also offers scholarships or else finances ambitious projects like the bid of Sonderborg to become European Capital of Culture in 2017. The company promises itself precisely through the energies freed by all working together for making the bid a culture which is most favorable to its international way of doing business.

The same applies to Aarhus 2017. The city does everything to lure highly qualified people to come and work in Aarhus. A look at the outline of the Aarhus bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2017 can tell immediately what officials have realized, namely that highly skilled people come only if there are good schools for their children and a rich cultural program to enjoy. Thus culture is utilized to make the place ever more attractive than what it seems or what is the reputation of the city or region. That means, however, that culture is made subservient to functional needs and shall be used as a part of a very sophisticated advertising strategy.

When referring above to the need to re-connect with the sea, it means a changed landscape. Many fishing villages have all but shrunk to meaningless sizes, and if they do not find an alternative source for their economy, they shall suffer even more a decline. With that can go easily low expectations as to what the entire region has still to offer. One exception in the Nordic countries has been the Norwegian city of Stavanger. It became all of a sudden rich due to the oil fields which were discovered near its shores. That made possible the conversion from a fishing village to a thriving northern city. However, Stavanger as European Capital of Culture did not manage to capture too many imaginations outside its immediate field of interactions. That says again something about uncertainties hanging like a cloud over all these cities.

Even Turku, European Capital of Culture in 2011, faces the dilemma whether its future lies really in the direction of being yet another cultural hub when the threatening closure of its shipping industry can mean the loss of countless jobs never to be regained in a cultural sector. In brief, economic development requires quite other elements to be sustainable and cannot, therefore, rely solely on culture to resolve and to manage things as was the case in the past.

Again debates in the Sonderborg region which borders on Germany reflect interestingly enough this uncertainty. There is a lot of doubt into which direction the region shall develop in. That includes discussions about the future concept for the port of Flensburg. There the question is being asked, should the industrial part be retained or if that has no future, would it not be wiser to convert the entire port into one for pleasure and leisure boats?

Development does leave an imprint and vice versa local communities, regional councils and national as much as European authorities need to decide in which direction it would be wise to invest in. This unknown can be a potential, but it requires also a practical wisdom to know in advance what shall be viable in future. And more so these blue prints for future developments must also suit the kind of population living in that location. Thus what has to be taken into account is a kind of cultural disposition. To find out in a more substantial manner, culture needs to be taken into consideration from as many angles as possible. Only then the choices can be worked out. Rightly so Oleg Koefoed speaks of love in this context. After all what does it take for people not only to move to a certain region, but for them to fall in love, marry, and settle down while taking up jobs which shall sustain the regional economy? To prompt such a collective sense of love shall be most difficult especially since culture itself does not have such a voice or reputation to be able to guide the decision making process into the correct direction. That makes defining a culture of sustainability all the more difficult, and leads, therefore, to the need for these Berlin discussions.

People usually do not uphold mega projects but are forced to adapt to these changed circumstances. Lately these projects have been challenged e.g. in Hamburg the Elbe concert hall due to its high costs but also Stuttgart 21 broke the back of the ruling Conservatives in Baden Württemberg, for people wanted another accountability i.e. fair distribution of resources and not just public money being used lavishly to create yet new business opportunities for the huge companies. Even if do they participate very often in a direct manner in this decision making process of how to allocate resources to make the economy work, there is a growing sentiment the economic question has to be dealt with not in crude, but in a different i.e. more sustainable way.

In combination with the risk of ECoC becoming huge mega projects, it means still another factor has to be addressed, namely the enormous power prevailing in modern societies and which has been able to dictate until now what kind of development shall not merely take place, but be told as if a 'success story' when in fact spin doctors are at work and no truthful account given. There is a definite need for an alternative reporting about what takes place when cities prepare their bid and how they prepare once they have received the designation of the title and how then the one year program has been implemented to set premise for what kind of future? If just more and mere consumption with culture used to fill the hotel beds by attracting more tourists during the year than ever before, this crude measure of success spelled out in just quantitative increases contradicts everything culture stands and strives for, namely a life being free to express itself creatively and with a certainty that freedom and happiness go together. Yet if this critical alternative is not mapped as a strategy, and it would mean allowing people to enter together with artists a creative process, then all other efforts seeking an alternative development shall disappear with time in silence and never be heard of again.

It is said that today's key concept is the 'knowledge economy'. That means quite other factors kick in and influence development. Thus a criterion like access to culture and to the Information Society is measured in real terms how far spread is broad band access. There is even talk about a digital literacy spelling out the risks for those who do not keep up, even though the fear that only younger generations have no problem with handling all the communication gadgets has been dispelled by older generations adapting quite well to this new onslaught of demands some term as the age of the Internet, including Facebook, Twitters and other means of communication. Yet again the need to focus on real power disappears behind these terms linked to a kind of organisational logic or simple standard for communication and organisation. Said simply, people stay in touch with each other but they do so by using modern means such as mobile phones and Skype when sitting in front of their computers to communicate with others.

Whenever there is something simplified and becomes a common good, then energy is being released. It may vanish or not be seen but it still counts on how people live, whether they enjoy life as an experience to be made when going swimming at an empty and wild beach or jump into a swimming pool besides a luxury hotel. Since the EU 2020 vision speaks about an 'economy of experience', it seems to promise money is to be made the more experiences can be gained through new spaces, including cybernetic ones, if only to forgot that from another angle or viewpoint this might be a complete waste of time. Since Bataille developed this theory about an economy needing waste in order to increase the price for goods and services, it should include this consideration about time being wasted or rather a stand-off is being reproduced simply because people cannot or seem unable to challenge the real power behind the development which is determining their way of life, work and even how the notion of culture has become known through a series of cities having taken the chance of being European Capital of Culture to exercise their own notion of culture for one year.

Before going into this notion while keeping in mind this aspect of 'waste of time', some other aspects have to be introduced before being able to describe more fully the dilemma European Capitals of Culture find themselves in. Given the general lack of intellectual integrity and, therefore in the absence of a challenge to power, success being reduced to what is effective and what works within such a predefined situation, the culture being mediated outlines more or less what is possible within a system being shaped by global forces. Altogether this means, the intellectual capacity to come to terms with what the arts have already identified as the defining power of what is art, is missing. That leaves prevailing power unchecked and far beyond what is possible when thinking what is needed, culturally speaking, with regards to the world we live in.

Cornelius Castoriadis, the Greek philosopher who lived in Paris and who was very critical of Lacan, especially how he used time to assert his authority as therapist, said that technology has replaced 'theory of society'. The latter was still linked to some concept of man, especially when Socialism and Communism advocated on the basis of ethical principles derived from Marx and others a way to achieve equality in a society of affluence. From insight into contradictions prevailing in society through a political movement, there should be possible a kind of governance not requiring anymore a state. This utopian dream placed huge confidence in the human being to be good and fair to others. Without wishing to go further into any details about the malfunctions of this utopian dream, it is interesting to denote that that modern version of equality has reduced citizens to such a status that all are equal as long as they remain outside the institutions of governance. The latter are designed to do the job power has assigned to them. That means people are equal only in terms of being shut out of the real decision making process. The technical blue print of society empowers almost an invisible hand to write the texts while everything else is reduced to fake participation, in order to achieve a pseudo 'we'-feeling. By any token or measure, this has been the success stories of the ECoC. They claim success when thousands if not more gather in the streets to see a spectacle or else stage a giant pick-nick as did Ruhr 2010 by closing down the autobahn, in order to have people join in for one day a huge table stretching for kilometres. Yet it is a matter of converting the image from one of sadness to one of happiness that counts, if only this makes the coming together easier and more enjoyable. Thus the pleasure principle is restored as elongation of the power allowing that some things can be enjoyed out in the open and this without any fear that this would transform itself into a meaningful form of organisation to question power.

Jean Paul Sartre said the strategy of organisation is to bring people together in order to gain from their energies but never to allow them to attain an identity of their own, from which they would begin to articulate their own demands and ideas as to how governance should look like. Thus at the threshold of power the European Capitals of Culture succumb to this organisational weakness and leave it at that, namely a culture not emancipated enough to ask the really hard questions.


The culture mediated by European Capitals of Culture have so far not brought about any noticable criticism of the tendency to abuse culture. As Tanja Brandmayr points out, the one thing missing and which is not sustainable, is criticism. Her points are crucial for an understanding of experiences made with ECoC cities like Linz '09. Rather than facilitate a learning to use culture to become creative and free, they end up using advertising and public relations to form patterns of communication about the events which do not justice to the cultural and artistic content.

As a matter of fact, most ECoC have not been able to link their programs with artistic and therefore inspirational methods. Thus they do not undertake the task to work through contradictions, in order to arrive at a different kind of governance. The latter heed cultural needs as part of the work and living process. This is only possible by linking through an active process productivity and creativity as made explicit in the name of our non profit urban society POIEIN KAI PRATTEIN: create and do.

Instead ECoC cities follow the lead of the European Union which has fashioned its EU 2020 vision to one key concept, namely that of 'economy of experience'. This new slogan can mean to produce ever new gadgets and ever more forms of distractions, if not spectacles as if forever it is better to sleep in an air conditioned room rather than outside, in the open, and down by the seaside. That transition can be seen everywhere. Once empty and beautiful beaches see in one year all of a sudden a little stand selling drinks. The next year it is a larger canteen and by the third or fourth year a restaurant has replaced everything which was there before and the umbrellas along with the beach chairs made available are for rent. Business made out of experiences is really tourism par excellence and again countries like Greece end up being mono functional even though the deficit had been rising at an alarming rate, but no one heeded the early warnings.

Athens / Berlin 16.5.2011

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