Reclaiming the European Commons #3

In a three-part essay, Hilde Teuchies uses her rich practical experience inside and outside European performing arts networks to reflect on a possible new future for culture within the European project. Previous editions of this magazine pointed out that both the European project and the way of working in the arts are under increasing pressure. The answer lies in a resolute choice for the reinforcement of culture and the arts in the European project.

Not because they create jobs, not because they improve social cohesion, not because they are a catalyst for creativity and innovation, not because they contribute to our mental health, not because they are a tool by which to promote humanitarian values – but because of all the above and most of all because without culture, there is no (European) community. At European level, this implies that we need to transform culture into strong public policy and leave behind the weak amalgam of cultural policy decisions that the EU acts upon these days.

In the earlier part of the text, Hilde discussed the first two steps that need to be taken to create this strong European policy. Not only do we need to strengthen the place of culture within European policy, using the well-known political instruments, but we also need to address national policies on culture at the level of each member state. Through their cultural policies and their vital role in EU policy making, member states exercise crucial leverage. Simultaneously, however, and outside the established institutions, we need to create a European commons for cooperation, collaboration and exchange. Can this commons become an active testing ground for new ideas on societal models and a breeding ground for new EU priorities? This is treated in the third and final chapter of Reclaiming the European Commons.

While Europe awkwardly tries to free itself from the quicksand, and our own political institutions all too often get stuck in short-sighted decision-making, a counter-movement might well grow in an apparent no man’s land – the public space between market and government.

Networking for the commons

While Europe awkwardly tries to free itself from the quicksand, and our own political institutions all too often get stuck in short-sighted decision-making, a counter-movement might well grow in an apparent  no man’s land – the public space between market and government. In all corners, and bottom up,  a growing number of initiatives are exploring a new kind of democracy. They focus on strengthening active citizenship and putting a commons into practice. They aim to achieve a more direct form of participation and to offer a platform to more voices  and more diverse voices. Supported by the possibilities of the internet, they are exploring new models of cooperation aimed at sustainability, solidarity, “slowing down” and reflection. This concerns  transversal practices that transcend and involve various social domains. Often, however, they start from the central insight that culture and also artistic practices are a crucial link in transition processes, as the foundation of current society and the space for imagining the future.

These practices are often very locally embedded. Transversal practices, after all, require embedding in local communities. But at the same time, many initiatives form a bridge to the supra-local and the international, for which there are many examples (see sidebar).

Many initiatives are true laboratories that test what such a different society might look like. The sum of these micro-initiatives can be precisely the hotbed from which real change can develop: a rhizome growing throughout Europe.

Artists’ initiatives

In the world of the arts too, we see countless initiatives emerging from the bottom up that are looking for a change. Certainly at the periphery of the institutionalised landscape, but increasingly also at established institutions, the need for a transition is increasing.  There are truly countless examples of artists and art collectives looking for other types of practices and alternative working models. Often these are barely visible and very small in scale. They do not necessarily have the broader European framework in mind. But their potential is undeniable. Many initiatives are true laboratories that test what such a different society might look like. The sum of these micro-initiatives can be precisely the hotbed from which real change can develop: a rhizome growing throughout Europe.

The fact that artists and organisations are experimenting with new working models can be felt everywhere in Europe, certainly also in Belgium. Especially outside the mainstream institutions, artists are fiddling with existing formats and experimenting with new working models. Discontent with the dominant working models in the art system is often the starting point. There is increasing dissatisfaction with the way work and productions can be created and presented to an audience. The conditions for slowing down and deepening are not always present. The increasing workload implies that the scope for substantive deepening or artistic risks is sometimes small, that there are too few possibilities for a meaningful exchange with a diverse public, and that artists are forced to work under difficult circumstances. They are looking for an alternative to the rat race that forces them to scamper from one project to another…

‘Sustainability’ can mean different things in this context. There is of course the ecological interpretation. But it also concerns better socio-economic conditions for artists and art workers. It is also about new ways of working that make possible a stronger local and social anchoring.

Experiments in sustainability can lead to very diverse strategies and working methods, as the practical examples elsewhere in this edition also show. For example, there are artists who set up projects in which they consciously seek a slowing down. Doing Nothing, for example, was a practical study by the Brussels organisation FoAM that actively investigated what can happen when artists do nothing. This is just one example of the many artists’ initiatives that explicitly thematise the conditions necessary for substantively meaningful work. Many artists are searching for the time and space needed to make real connections with the public and with the surroundings in which their art is created. International mobility is indeed increasingly being called into question, also from an ecological point of view or from discomfort with the superficial buying behaviour of international festivals and houses…  Monitoring these conditions means saying no to opportunities and invitations that jeopardise these conditions (for example, artists’ residencies that are so short that forging local connections is impossible).

And how do we obtain a more meaningful interaction with a more diverse audience? Within current models for international co-production and presentation, in which works of art travel from black box to black box or white cube to white cube, this is not always possible. More and more artists are consciously opting for interaction with the public space, in order to increase or at least examine the social impact of their work. To mention just a few: Simon Allemeersch, Jozef Wouters, Maria Lucia Cruz Correia, Ief Spincemaille, Benjamin Verdonck, Benjamin Vandewalle, Yinka Kuitenbrouwer, Einat Tuchm and Gossie Vervloesem. Countless performances, installations, interactive productions and texts are about social themes. Artistic environments are the laboratory for experiments with social processes. Some artists seek the boundary between art and activism. Others connect with other domains such as science, technology or education. Still others take as the object of their art a critical analysis of European institutions (a.o. Thomas Bellinck, Lukas de Man, Filip Berten).

In short, social engagement is no longer incompatible with artistic autonomy. On the contrary, the question is: What can be the social added value of this artistic autonomy, in terms of meaning creation, knowledge development or the development of communities and (local) networks?

The city plays a crucial role in all of this, as a testing ground or laboratory. There, artists look for the heterogeneous, multilayered, multicultural reality of contemporary society. The city is not only a source of inspiration, stories and material. Such a city hides a wealth of creativity and is a meeting place for sometimes unsuspected partners in crime: various and diverse types of citizens, activists, urbanists, artisans and world improvers.

Through a practice of exchange and knowledge sharing, the sharing of open-source solutions, the commoning of ideas and experiences, they reinforce local initiatives and push the transition forward across borders. It is in support of this combination of driving forces and innovative practices that Europe could play an important role in the future.

Institutionalisation and translation to policy

Often small or artist-established initiatives are the triggers for such change. A lively no man’s land exists in various cities in Europe from which new initiatives are bubbling up from below. Do these initiatives also seep through to the established institutions? Sometimes, but often not. The permeability of the walls of the institutions is not the same at all times and places. Things are not too bad in Flanders and Brussels, certainly compared to many other European contexts where the division between standard institutions and the independent sector is much more rigid. Institutions of course are less flexible than small-scale artists’ initiatives. At the same time, the number of established organisations and institutions is growing within which work on transition and transformation is being done with conviction, one more drastically than the other.  Some focus on embedding in the city. Others concentrate on reducing the ecological footprint. Still others are working hard on rethinking institutional models or internal structures, and creating working conditions tailored to people. The transition projects and processes that are set out in this way are all important searches for depth, connectivity with citizens, sustainable art practices and social embedding. Art institutions are also becoming increasingly active in local citizens’ initiatives and transition networks.

What we wrote above about the commons projects applies mutatis mutandis to artists’ initiatives. Their goal is often hyperlocal, but international knowledge and experiences are frequently used. Many projects and initiatives have been set up in close collaboration with artists and colleagues from other European countries and with the support of Europe. Via European networks and collaboration platforms, artists and cultural actors find each other and combine insights and bundle forces into committed reflection and research projects that develop new and better scenarios for the future. Through a practice of exchange and knowledge sharing, the sharing of open-source solutions, the commoning of ideas and experiences, they reinforce local initiatives and push the transition forward across borders.

It is in support of this combination of driving forces and innovative practices that Europe could play an important role in the future. Much more than is currently the case, a successor to Creative Europe could support these platforms and networks in their solidary search for sustainable solutions.

This brings us back to the two pillars of a possible new Creative Europe programme, as I outlined in the previous part of this text. A first pillar supports what bubbles, bottom-up, from the commoning practice of larger, long-term collaboration platforms and networks. This guarantees that a multitude of voices are heard and that experiences, good practices, innovative insights and fresh ideas are shared to the maximum. Ideally, a second pillar of this possible successor to Creative Europe would focus on policy preparation work aimed at anchoring art and culture in  Europe’s society, and would enable the circulation of these transition proposals towards the various echelons of EU institutions and institutes

This is a pure win-win for Europe. It supports environments where citizens reflect together on the kind of society they want. It strengthens the involvement of citizens in the European project of the future.  It broadens the potential for creative solutions.

This opens perspectives beyond the tired defeatism that you sometimes hear concerning the European project. By bringing our influence to bear, we as artists and cultural actors can make the difference and give Europe a push in the right direction. A precondition for this is that space is created for innovative practices and proposals, more than is currently the case. In the area of policy, openness to the bottom-up process is crucial, as is porosity between the different policy domains. But it is also essential that the institutions abandon their stiffness and make room for imagination; that what emerges from the artists’ studios and city laboratories more easily finds its way to the established organisations and to the policy chambers at all levels. And back. This requires openness and a desire for dialogue, on the part of all.

Conclusion

In my triptych on the place of culture in Europe, I made a somewhat rough analysis of the problems in the difficult relationship between Europe and culture, and the gaps in the policies of the national member states. In this piece, we examined the new energy that arises from the bottom, in the free zone. This makes me hopeful. It is not an optimism that comes from a naive belief in the power of the base. I draw hope from the realisation that the call for a change is swelling everywhere. And that the patience of citizens with the slowness of policy is gradually being exhausted. My optimism also comes from a stubborn belief in the power of art. Not necessarily as a political force, but as the source that feeds the ‘dismeasure’: the critical view that questions the consensus in society, and thus opens the way for change. The fact that the disruptive power of art works slowly and indirectly is an advantage. It provides for perspective and thoughtfulness. But it is the humus that enriches the insights and triggers the change-makers. It is the humus that Europe desperately needs today. Which is why I wrote this plea for opening up cultural institutions, for fostering transverse initiatives, for nurturing the no man’s land between market and government, for letting in a multitude of voices, for openness to the unexpected…

What strategies should we as cultural actors use to get Europe back on track? This remains a topic for continued discussion. But that which philosopher/activist Szecko Horvat presents as principles seems to me to be a clear compass:

  • No retreat (you fight from within)
  • No opposing technology (use it smartly)
  • Know the system (make it work for you)
H.T.

Hilde Teuchies

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