Productivity of Culture


Friday Oct 19th 17.00 – 18.00

Outcome of the Symposium – a dialogue between Bart Verschaffel and Hatto Fischer


Hatto Fischer:

To review with Bart Verschaffel the ECCM Symposium "Productivity of Culture' by way of dialogue, that reminds me what we did back then in 1994. Then we concluded as well by way of dialogue the Fifth Seminar held here in Athens as well. The Fifth Seminar was called officially 'Culture, Building Stone for Europe 2002' but amongst the 100 participants and 35 poets was better known as 'Cultural Actions for Europe'. At that time Bart had just completed his task as coordinator for literature in Antwerp when European Capital of Culture in 1993 with Eric Antonis as artistic director.

So our reflections about 'productivity of culture' stand very much in continuity to what we had discussed already back then, starting in 1993 in Bruges and continued 1994 in Athens. As this followed in 1995 with 'Myth of the City' conference in Crete and to which 15 poets and 15 architects, philosophers, planners came together to discuss living conditions in modern cities, there exists by now a knowledge base to help clarify our epistemological orientation.

That is one of the strong points of Bart Verschaffel as made evident in a paper he gave me recently and in which he talks about "Public Truth - Public Spaces" in order to describe how we use our knowledge to shape but also to see how private, semi public and public spaces are being constantly created within cities. Such epistemological concern touches upon important experiences many of us are making when, for instance, love relationships break up after which the Right to remain silent can be compared to the Right to speak up.

Always Bart would point out where our assumption of a rational dialogue must be questioned for there is a risk to even insult the other with out hidden agendas and unreflected assumptions as to what is 'rational'. If Louis Baeck would have been able to come to this year's ECCM Symposium, he would have complemented this with pointing out how little we in the Western World take into consideration the Islamic view of globalization.  

Moreover Bart Verschaffel upholds the university as one of the few institutions still left with some rules by which knowledge can be validated. He is now head of the department for planning and architecture at the University of Gent. When he arrived in Athens for the ECCM Symposium, it was important for me to hear how he describes the Academic situation as it appears to him and many others now. With regards to being still that important institutional set-up in which knowledge is validated, there is a worrying trend affecting academic qualification strategies and career mapping. He sees now that only a certain type of publication is asked for, not only the distinction between different forms of presenting man's quest for knowledge (formulating a hypothesis, gathering empirical evidence, aphorism, scientific article etc.) is at the risk of being lost, but now many succumb to a certain game being played. They no longer share knowledge with others but then how can knowledge be validated according to mutually accepted rules, he asks? And once only a certain type of publication is accepted, soon everyone knows how it is done and therefore they no longer enter a real debate about knowledge. This kind of uniformization will cause a huge set back in universities aspiring to remain not merely places of higher learning but also of being challenging places to the intellect and therefore to society as a whole.

According to Bart Verschaffel human development does still depend upon culture in the broadest sense of the word. This is to provide and to give some orientation not only about what novel to read or what artistic developments took place in the Renaissance, but what is a responsible way of dealing with human questions about knowledge. It has ramification upon many things, including in what sort of city do we wish to live in and what can be done to enhance the living quality of everyone. After all human knowledge can only be valid if accessible to everyone and therefore everyone participating in the validation process.

Insofar as the ECCM Symposium attempted to focus on some specific topics, it can be reviewed of the same question: what knowledge about cultural policy, the role of culture, the dialogue between cultures, cultural planning and the tasks of European and other Capitals of Culture was validated on the basis of what was presented, discussed, commented upon and taken a step further to become publically accessible knowledge? 

Cultural Planning

In his paper, Public Truth - Public Spaces Bart Verschaffel develops a key thesis about the rationale of dialogue. Interesting in terms of cultural planning is the fact that a city can and does create different spaces with different meanings. Some of these spaces can be planned e.g. public ones. It makes sense, therefore, to clarify the epistemological orientation when speaking about 'public space'. It is by the way, as we heard in the session on cultural policy a key concept to which Michael D. Higgins referred to over and again. As space for artistic expression it takes on a meaning of culture. Since different groups will use different reference systems most of which are based on visual evidence and metaphors, it becomes crucial to discuss the implicit and explicit assumptions of any cultural self-understanding. Why is it so important for cultural planners to consider this? People make references to their city, to their spaces for meeting with neighbors, to their private homes etc. most of the time in visual terms. However, as we have seen in the example of the Blind Boys' Peace Mural from India that does not include the experiences of those boys relying on the sense of touch or of hearing. Consequently a city providing orientation through visual references does not yet include another knowledge based on touch or hearing or on still other cultural understandings of the city i.e. how private and public spaces intertwine, relate or even alter when interaction take place in semi-private or semi-public spaces. This 'in-between' all spaces is also a metaphor for the ramification people feel when they live nowhere, in no time zone, as if devoid of any meaning.  

Consequently Bart Verschaffel reflects about the need to clarify references when mediation becomes necessary between private and public spaces. For once identity formation processes are associated with only private spaces, then other Rights prevail. He sees the need to grant to 'the Right to speak' the opposite, namely 'the Right to remain silent'. As such culture would not endure so much failures or break-downs in human relationships if a city would not base everything on universal assumptions about communication i.e. everyone sharing the same rational principles of dialogue. Rather it would be necessary to reflect upon the space in which we find ourselves in i.e. whether public as defined commonly by all or semi-public because linked to a certain cultural understanding e.g. the difference of a church to a mosque. Interesting philosophical conclusions follow out of it with implications for cultural planning.

Consequently cultural planning needs the epistemological clarification of the term 'space' especially in terms of what references. As there are various cultural assumptions about a possible dialogue, the needed communication process has to be planned by heeding the various codes of behavior and even cultural values attributed to different spaces. There is no single principle which can be applied indifferently to all kinds of spaces existing in the city.

Network of Networks

My first question to Gleb Firsov about 'Network of Networks' would be, why he makes an additional restriction by speaking about a 'Network of Cultural Networks' (and not just Networks) when in fact also transportation networks or as in his case a network of nuclear cities can talk about culture.

As to the issue of membership linked to being inclusive or not, in my opinion that does not follow necessarily out of defining membership according to certain principles. As a matter of fact, no formal or for that matter also no informal network (like Kids' Guernica) can continue to exist if there is not some policy in place, some philosophy behind the actions for no network can be open to everything. That would make it otherwise too arbitrary.

Moreover, without becoming a formal network, you cannot receive any funds; right now the informal meetings taking place between the newly designated European Capitals of Culture is made possible because they all have a running budget which can facilitate such meetings. Once that year is over, they have no longer such financial ease.

And any network needs a concrete location, an organisational base, a website and some initiatives to keep all the networks together. It requires a minimum of formal structure, but of course the art of networking is always as Takuya Kaneda would put it an art of bringing people together and this free from hierarchies since it is they that make life so difficult.

Whether the ECCM will get out of its current crisis by reaching for the stars i.e. becoming a member of the 'Network of Networks', this has to be questioned how realistic is that. Many networks are disappearing simply e.g. the Creative City Network in Canada has no longer the governmental support to keep it going. At the same time, it has to be asked what chances the US Capital of Culture has insofar American Cities would be willing to join something linked in reality to an extension of Catalonian foreign cultural policy?

I agree with Gleb Firsof about the need to link rich and poor, well known and not so well known networks and if things are to be taken serious, then the 'Network of Networks' must have a legitimate basis and be well known.

Altogether I consider the outcome of the ECCM Symposium in need of further evaluation especially in terms of what the ECCM members think are the development chances of such a 'Network of Networks'.

Informal networks like Kids' Guernica have it there easier as they are carried forward by concrete bottom-up actions and need little financing while at global level there is a convincing coordinator with Takuya Kaneda in Japan and who ensures together with an international committee of Kids' Guernica that certains standards are kept when children enter a collaborative learning process to paint another one of those big peace murals the size of Picasso's Guernica (7,8 x 3,5 m). That ensures trust and a validity of things as something is not merely claimed but really done. Here practice precedes any further going reflection.

Reflections and future plans

When a major effort is done to bring together people with various discourses, there remains always the question but what were the outcomes and in terms of future perspectives what will be some of the further going steps.

Bernard Conlon from Belfast would put it as follows: the moment something develops into a more serious networking, then other issues arise and this at the risk of loosing some of the initiatial innocence which helped get the thing going in the first place. His remarks are a reminder that cultural developments are sometimes real set-backs or failures once it has become impossible to keep everyone together, in dialogue with each other, since the great divide, namely money draws new borders.

The 'Network of Networks' was the key aim of Spyros Mercouris whereas there is a difference between informal and formal networking methods with Kids' Guernica doing quite well by remaining modest, decentralized, bottom-up and free of hierarchies. The policy of Kids' Guernica as expressed by Takuya Kaneda is meant to facilitate such informal networking. It continues by getting someone else going in another country, place and time in order to initiate a learning experiences based on doing collaborative work while painting collectively a peace mural.

At the same time these experiences allow for further going reflections. For instance, Savina Tarsitano after her project in Martinique expressed clearly the need to reflect upon the new role of the artist in relationship to the community. By doing a Kids' Guernica painting there, she managed to bring into a cultural centre precisely those children and youngsters who had refused until now to participate in any of the community initiatives for culture and social actions. In her case this went even a step further as those children she involved were members of a gang called 'Baghdad'. By entering together the collaborative learning process entailed when painting together a Kids' Guernica sized canvas (7,8 x 3,5 m), she overcame her fear of them and they their mistrust of her. Savina feels now the responsibility for her children, as she calls them, insofar as they asked her if she will come back and not just leave them behind while she flies back to Europe. The presence of Madame Galot at the Symposium and Kids' Guernica Exhibition in Athens underlines furthermore the wish of Martinique to host in future a Kids' Guernica event and therefore connect the Kids' Guernica family with a place known to have experienced back in recent history the slave trade and the impact of all kinds of colonisations.

Crucial in these meetings is the awareness that each person has a story to tell. That was most apparent when Michael D. Higgins upon meeting Jad Salman, artist from Palestine, said that the story of Palestine is one of the most difficult ones to tell.

Michael D. Higgins gave a special poetry reading at the Athens Centre in Mets. It was organised thanks to the Greek-Irish Society with Emer Ronan as president. Poetry is made, explained Michael D. Higgins, when you write down something and you know that is a complete poem.

There are more reflections to come in future. To be sure, along this path there will always be on our minds the Blind Boys in India who made that beautiful mural thanks to the work done by Asit Poddar. Equally there are all the other children and youths who have created collectively narratives whether in Chios and Izmir, Martinique, Afghanistan, Nepal, Japan, USA, Australia, Georgia or just here in Athens at the 108th Elementary School. The latter, about two hundred of them came to the opening of the exhibition. Unforgetable shall be how they greeted the participants of the Symposium "Productivity of Culture", namely with their lovely 'hellos'. Their presence came about thanks to the work by Thomas Economacos.

There are many others like Sara Lowndes from Dubai who contributed to make this exhibition possible. She conveyed the message from the children at her school in Dubai and who have shown empathy for those who are not as lucky as they are insofar as they live in peace and can visit their friends whenever they want. There is as well Magnolia Albertazzi who coordinated the eight Kids' Guernica coordinators when they narrated some of their Kids' Guernica experiences. Without Takuya Kaneda from Japan and the international coordinator of Kids' Guernica this coming together would be inconceivable. His quiet presence and wish to keep things simple is an invaluable asset. Then there is Deniz Hasirci from Izmir who presented together with Efi Lipari and Vice President of the Prefecture, Nikos Nichtas from Chios this peace mural reflecting a Greek-Turkish dialogue about a friendship which has started between all who were involved in that painting. It was interesting to hear from Bernard Conlon about the wall murals in Belfast and what plans he has for the future with the youth of Belfast. To whom participating in this Kids' Guernica Exhibition and ECCM Symposium was an inspiration worthwhile thinking about how to take that idea and modify it so that something can be done to further the peace process back home. 

It is safe to say that all the participants of the Symposium were moved by what the children had expressed through these paintings, but then that is always the case when "the souls of children have touched the canvas" (Thomas Economacos).  

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