Beyond the Obvious was organised by Culture Action Europe to coincide with their 2014 Annual General Meeting. I attended the events and presentations at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and Sage Gateshead, UK, on the 10 & 11th October 2014.
Conference partners included the city councils of Newcastle and Gateshead, Newcastle’s universities, local and national funding agencies, and European cultural advocacy organisations. There were 200 delegates, speakers, discussion leaders and topic activators from across the European Union member states. CAE has just opened its membership to individuals as well as organisations. It was noted there were more non-members than members at the event.
The President of CAE, Mercedes Giovinazzo, got things going by explaining why culture must be put (back) at the heart of the European project and decision-making. As it stands, a cultural context is absent from the European Parliament’s core strategic document, Europe 2020. It uses only an economic logic to determine and legislate for social priorities across the EU. For example, social benefits are measured in an economic context without making any connection between culture and social capital.1
Beyond the Obvious used a mix of larger group discussions, presentations and provocations, and thematic ‘labs’, where we worked on ideas and actions on the key topics of: measuring value; the role of the city in transforming culture; and the ‘rules’ that would lead to a shared economy. It was generally agreed that a focus on change rather than crisis was necessary and urgent, in order to be prepared for economic recovery.
It was widely felt to be impossible to talk about culture without discussing issues bigger than our own arts and cultural sector issues, especially if the aim is for us to be involved in changing the terms of the debate and truly affecting the public sphere. Many contributors explained their aims as absolutely not about setting out to solve the question of culture in society, but instead to look at what they can do to change the value systems of contemporary societies where the economic argument is privileged above all else.
There was heated debate about the (often competing) rationales for public funding of the arts. One contributor, Alan Davey (Arts Council England), reported that at the European Chapter Meeting of the International Federation of Arts Councils in Lithuania in September this year, the need now to give value to art itself was a major point of agreement. The feeling was that through the recent financial and economic crises it was necessary to make the case for the arts, initially in relation to education and later tourism, but we must move on to make the case for the importance and legitimacy of arts and culture as an indispensable part of society.
Alistair Spalding (Sadler’s Wells Theatre) a founder member of What Next? in the UK, explained its establishment two years ago. The purpose of the initiative was to raise the big question of how cultural leaders have failed to lead on value of culture and to look at how to lobby upwards. It began and continues as an assembly of about 60 people, meeting monthly at the Young Vic, London, for exactly an hour, on Wednesdays at 8.30am. Regional chapters have started across the UK. Their aim as arts organisations and individuals is not change through co-production (not to work as that kind of arts network). Instead, rather than promote What Next? as a brand, it was decided participants would independently take the What Next? message into their own organisations and circles, and multiply the message that way. Like all the small organisations at the conference trying to act more politically, with between one and three part-time staff, different structural designs emerge as well as use of a range of methods effective at circulating ideas for change.
All panellists discussed how best the arts and culture sector can organize itself better in a changing society, where even its own constituencies are changing fast, perhaps by rethinking its strategies and tactics to act more like a movement rather than a conventional network. Roughly, the shared view was that a movement may be more effective politically, public, outward looking, energized by many kinds of acts of solidarity, working mutually towards bigger social and cultural change and open to diverse allegiances, while on the other hand the network model typically tends to be more structural, inward looking, consensus seeking, centralized and policy focussed.
Several contributors including Emina Visnic (POGON Zagreb Center for Independent Culture and Youth) and Sergio Salgado, (X.Net Spain), described the real game as being about power relations. Again, a view widely supported among delegates. Wanting to influence and to acquire power, on the one hand, and campaigning for change by forming diverse (but clearly identifiable) relationships and functional groups that cut across and connect into other sectors’ networks. POGON work closely with local government in Zagreb to develop the city. X.Net freely provide and show ways of using online media.
On the failure of simple cause and effect models to achieve change, it was proposed that it is better to be both opportunistic and, crucially, strong enough to make opportunities. On levels of participation, in answer to the frustration that not all members of a group or network are active all the time, the reply was largely; but so what! Even if only a handful is more actively involved, this should not undermine the value of the network. Those who support the activity of the few are vitally important too. Where austerity measures have eroded security and freedom at the social and cultural level of people’s everyday lives. People have had it with party and governmental politics and their systems.
On research, there were many voices from different countries calling for one thing: better ways to collect and disseminate existing research and the commissioning of longitudinal research, both needed immediately; that the evidence-base is a means to an end; that doing and accessing better research is vital for informed policy-making. This is in tune with the NCFA’s Strategy on Research and the outcomes and recommendations from the NCFA Colloquia held in Galway, Kilkenny and Dublin. In terms of ‘big data’ produced by big Europe, there was frustration that big surveys like those carried out by Eurobarometer were not being used better to ask specific questions.2
From government funding agencies to grassroots activists, it was clear that everyone wants a serious intervention that will change political discourse so that politicians can become comfortable talking about the arts. This echoes the NCFA’s ambitions to change the terms of the debate about the arts in Ireland and our goals for 2016: Republic of Culture.3
A darkly humorous and satirical reflection by Renata Salecl on the ideology of choice in today’s world and the anxiety it creates in every one of us brought the event to a close. Paraphrasing George Orwell, we were cautioned to be suspicious when politicians speak of democracy and freedom. She sketched a scenario whereby those who don’t subscribe to the repetition of positive messages are increasingly told they have only themselves to blame when their fortunes head south. We heard about the Immortalists, masters of self-deception, who claim that a complete belief that immortality exists has the power to prevent death. Hearing the news that one of the group had died, the person’s death was blamed by their erstwhile colleagues on the person’s failure to believe.
People are increasingly experiencing large amounts of guilt over our failure to affect certain situations affecting our lives, when in fact these situations have actually been taken out of our control. Salecl, a legal theorist, suggests the serious consequence of this is that guilt and anxiety replaces our capacity to produce social critique. What caught my attention over the two days was that so many thought it was time to shift the push for change from policy to politics; not to abandon the space of representation to politicians and other and to use the power of representation and all our skills in this (“isn’t that what we do!”) to both resist and persuade. The audience response to the closing imagery was a heady mixture of self-deprecating and knowing laughter, followed by a hearty round of applause.
Beyond the Obvious was moderated by Luca Bergamo, Secretary General of Culture Action Europe. You can read Claire Power’s interview with him for the NCFA Newsletter prior to May’s European Parliament elections, here.
Independent Curator, Visual Arts.
1. You can see what that looks like for Ireland here
2. An example of a Eurobarometer cultural access and participation survey, no. 399: here
3. Page 6 on ‘What Really Unites Europeans’ of this Eurobarometer survey shows culture is the main thing that creates a sense community: here