Unity through Conferences

It’s November and the conference season in full swing across Europe. Austerity and cuts may be the dominant reality but Europe’s cultural cosmopolitans have their boarding passes at the ready.

The ever-welcome newsletter of the Platform for Intercultural Europe (PIE) sets the scene.  Conferences in Belfast, Brussels, Turin, Vilnius, Helsinki, Brussels (again), Cosenza, and Kobuleti; and that’s just November.  Amidst this cornucopia of lanyards, name tags and lost luggage two themes emerge, the ever-changing make-up of European societies and how “culture” can, or should, solve Europe’s problems.

I’m sure that participants in all these events will come away energised with new ideas, some which may be put into practice.  My own more limited hope is that conference organisers put as much as possible onto their websites after the event. It is so frustrating to read the programme, perhaps read some advance papers, and, then, nothing more. (advance #Hashtags also useful!).

The Platform’s newsletter goes some way to open up one series of meetings.  The European Commission’s use of expert groups has come under criticism recently from the European Parliament. The PIE reports on a meeting in Brussels of the “Open Method of Co-ordination” .. an expert group on  “Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue”. It’s a comprehensive report: just as well as I can’t find any formal minutes or names of members. “Open” clearly does not mean “public” which is a shame in today’s more transparent requirements of governance.

I was taken by Chris Torch’s expert paper prepared for the meeting in which he gives an overview of migration and poses some ways forward for the arts sector to address social cohesion and diversity issues.  A sound paper but one I felt stopped short of proposing the radical changes needed.  It seems the OMC meeting itself also took the easy way out with its interim view that arts organisations should perhaps carry on as usual and merely add some additional “community” arts to their programmes.  The EU prides itself on its “Unity in Diversity” but nowhere more so than the ways member states deal with their own citizens and residents in their countries.  This point was raised at the meeting by representatives of member state governments. The Torch paper underplays the wide nature of “migrants” weakening many assumptions and recommendations he made.  There are, post 1945, four main waves of migration, loosely described as “guest worker”, post colonial, economic and intra-EU free movement. Western Europe has seen the four waves, in different mixes, from the 1950s. The newer member states in Central Europe had a long period of increasing mono-culture and a more recent and shorter experience of both emigration and fluidity.  Countries with a history of being emigrants themselves now find themselves receiving migrants. In many countries migrants, as in newcomers, are outnumbered by second and third generation citizens, no longer migrants nor should they be considered as such. Racism not migration is the issue.

Each country has a different mix based on their own history. I found both the Torch paper and the report on the meeting too timid in their views. The hard topics are avoided: religious  and cultural differences, the rise of overt racism (in Greece for example with Golden Dawn, in Hungary etc). In short: the policies and practices of the last decade do not seem to be working. More of the same is not enough.  What was missing from the Torch paper and it seems from the OMC is the realisation that change is needed within the arts and creative industry sectors, as employers of managers and artists. Adding activities on the margins of the mainstream is not enough.

Brussels naturally, hosts two conferences which look at two sides of the second mega-theme.  Culture Action Europe, a lobby group for the arts sector, opens with a programme  Let’s ask ourselves: what we can do for the European project, in what ways can we be useful? And then: engage to do it!   I do admire the conference’s aim ” A starting point for a large-scale movement of European citizens, regardless of the sector in which they are engaged, to reclaim the destiny of the European project.”

These arts sector orientated debates are followed two weeks later at the Brussels Conversations on a Cultural Coalition for a Citizens Europe, discussing “the future of the European project and the citizen’s role in making it a reality”.  A brave aim when many are questioning the very concept of the European project. Was the Nobel Peace Prize the final accolade for the project now it has achieved its original aim of ensuring enduring peace between France and Germany?  I do like the conference proposition that  “The lectures and workshops in this encounter will move beyond the theoretical-legal-philosophical discussion and show that citizenship and its cultural component is something we should practice in our daily lives”.

A busy time indeed. And myself?  Well not to be left out I’m speaking at a conference in Paris on 23 November.  My theme?  “Europe: cultural solutions to a wicked problem?”


Derry: UK City of Culture 2013 launches programme

Derry-Londonderry, the UK’s City of Culture in 2013,  has announced its programme.

Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of Culture Company 2013, said: “We hope that Derry~Londonderry’s City of Culture year brings a sense of joy, a sense of ambition, a sense of pride in our community, a sense of being part of a global community, and in the end a sense of achievement – that we all did this together and it meant something. A huge success for a small city.”

Derry won the title after a competition with 15 other British cities; selection was by an independent panel.

McCarthy continues

It is a privilege to have received the baton from the amazing festival that was London 2012 and to be carrying on the legacy from Liverpool 08. We in turn will pass the spotlight to Glasgow  2014 and the Commonwealth Games and the next UK City of Culture in 2017.

Derry~Londonderry in Northern Ireland will play host to a world-class programme which includes the Turner Prize presented outside England for the first time; a new commission by the London Symphony Orchestra; award-winning choreographer Hofesh Shechter; the return of Field Day; a new play by American playwright Sam Shepard; local Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney; and the first visit to Northern Ireland of the Royal Ballet for over 20 years.

The core themes of the City of Culture project are Joyous Celebration and Purposeful Inquiry with four distinct components:

1, Unlocking Creativity
2, Creative Connections
3, Digital Dialogue
4, Creating a New Story

As well as the cultural events  the Derry2013 programme has  extensive projects with schools and community groups.



“We are suffering in a sea of blood”: Samar Yazbek

Syrian writer Samar Yazbek has been awarded the Pen Pinter award for Writer of Courage on the nomination of Carol Ann Duffy.   Yazbek, now in exile in Paris, writes about her experiences in Syria in “A Woman in the Crossfire” and was in discussion with Peter Clark at the Frontline Club in July.

“What is this madness?” she writes. “Death is a mobile creature that now walks on two legs. I hear its voice, I can stare right at it. I am the one who knows what it tastes like, who knows the taste of a knife against your throat, the taste of boots on your neck … I am no longer afraid of death. We breathe it in. I wait for it, calm with my cigarette and coffee.”

Last year I wrote this on my previous blog:

Writers capture the essence of place and time.   The tragic events in Syria are underreported by the media.  Daily the government is killing protestors seeking nothing more than freedom.  As with the other North African and Arab countries Syria is showing what happens when trust breaks down within a country between the leaders and the people of a country. Egypt and Tunisia have started the long slow path to normality. Syria has not. Yet.

But what it is like to be in Syria now?  We hear little from those in the country.   Samar Yazbek is a novelist, screen writer and was banned from leaving Syria last month.  In a recent interview  she said:

“In recent weeks people have finally broken the silence and fear, I myself have participated in the demonstrations”, she says. “We have found the courage to ask for freedom and democracy, an end to emergency laws that oppress us since 1963. We demand real political parties and elections, the right to express ourselves. But the repression is very hard, with many deaths and arrests. As always, the regime makes promises, but does not maintain them.The army and security forces control everything.”  More than that of the streets, she says, is the fear of speaking”      ” ……..  “The solution must come from within. From our youth who are the most important force, from women activists. In all there is much awareness and commitment, refusal to divide ethnic groups or religions.”

As a writer she puts her thoughts into words.   Here is the opening of a recent work published on Babelmed ,  ” Awaiting Death”

It is not true that death will have your eyes when it comes.

It is not true that the desire for death is like the desire for love. These two are not identical, yet they both float in nothingness.

In love, one identifies oneself with another person, whereas in death one identifies with one’s existence and the metamorphosis from tangible substance to an abstract idea. People have always seen death as being more noble than their own existence: if not, why venerate the dead? The deceased, who was here among us only a few minutes ago, is at once turned into nothing but a spark.

I would not say that I am calm now, but I am silent. I can hear my heart thumping like the echo of a distant explosion: more clearly than the sound of bullets, screaming kids, and wailing mothers, and even more clearly than the trembling voice of my mother when she tells me not to go out into the street.

The assassins are everywhere.
Death is everywhere.

In the village,

In the city,

By the seaside.

Assassins are taking over both humans and places, and they are terrorizing people. They come to the homes of our neighbours, telling them that we are about to kill them. Then, they turn back at us crying: They will kill you!

I am the accidental visitor to this place. I am the improvisation of life. I do not belong to my own community.

Continue reading at   www.babel.net


E17: capital of culture

Imagine:    350 exhibitions and events in 180 venues; 47 music acts in 29 gigs; add an international film festival and the second month of a major refurbished top class museum.  Where’s this cultural extravaganza taking place?  A Capital of Culture somewhere in Europe?  A major city’s  annual programme?

Walthamstow. In September.  All of it.  Yes that’s right. The butt of so many jokes, a closed dog-racing stadium, E17. Walthamstow.

Well September sees an explosion of culture that consigns those jokes to history and puts Walthamstow on the map (well it’s there already: end of the Victoria Line).

The E17 Art Trail opens on 1 September is an independent artist-led project started in 2004. This year’s programmes covers all artforms (with 350 events of course it covers everything!), takes place in private houses, pubs, estate agents ( part of a poetry trail), shops,  cafes, in the streets and parks: in fact just about everywhere including churches (but not yet a mosque).  Check out the programme and  just experience the vitality of the area. (Even better of course come along: there will be something for you).

The E17 Film Festival recalls the 1920s heyday of British films when Walthamstow predated Hollywood.     “Walthamstow had four major film studios which produced over 400 films before the outbreak of the second world war. One of the most famous was The Battle of The Somme (1916). The film sold over 20 million tickets in its first six weeks – a record that could only be smashed 60 years later by the first Star Wars movie”

This years’ 10 day festival showcases short films. The international competition has short listed films from Germany, Japan, Russia, France, Spain, Czech Republic and UK here and a few tasters here.

Music takes over at the end of the month with the Stow Festival.  From Baroque ,Collegium Musicum 90, to soul  to Naz Anine’s Moroccan songs to, well the list is endless (inlcuding indie for those who,, well).  An advance playlist is on Spotify full line-up and gig info.

And whilst all of this is going on the newly refurbished William Morris Gallery gives a permanent venue for the borough’s culture.  Socialist, craftsman, poet, entrepreneur, designer, re-discoverer of Iznik pottery, founder of the heritage and conservation movement, Morris’ life and work is celebrated in the house he lived in as a teenager and student.  Hurry, as Grayson Perry’s “Walthamstow Tapestry” is on show until 23 September.

As a member of the selection panel for the European Capitals of Culture I often see cities putting forward cultural programmes which seek to engage the whole community, to bring culture and citizens closer together.  The commercial benefits of a vibrant cultural scene are critical to today’s prosperity. It’s just good to live in a borough which is a capital of culture, every year.


European Capitals of Culture 2020+

The new criteria and procedures for the ECOC from 2020 have now been published. See my later blog entry   http://wp.me/p20NFR-8S

There is also a new guidance note for cities considering or preparing to bid   http://ec.europa.eu/culture/tools/actions/documents/ecoc-candidates-guide_en.pdf

Original blog entry continues……..

The European Commission proposes to continue the European Capitals of Culture programme beyond 2020.  The current programme ends in 2019, with cities, as yet unselected, in Italy and Bulgaria.

The EC’s proposals take the programme to 2033:  the most long term assertion of the EU’s existence in recent months given its failure to address the crisis of the eurocrisis.

As now there will be two capitals a year, from different countries set out in a long term rota.  I would hazard a guess that some of the larger countries will adopt the UK’s national city of culture  on a four year cycle (Derry in 2013)  as they wait for their turn at the European level.

A new change is the return of applicants from candidate and potential candidate countries. (I already know bids are being prepared in cities in Serbia and Turkey for 2020).  However these only come into the programme every third year on the current proposals.

The Commission has issued two detailed papers on their proposals. One includes a very intensive review of recent trends by ECOCs and the proposed strategic direction for future ECOCs.

No doubt there will be strong lobbying by governments, cities and the cultural sector!  The Commissions proposals need to be approved by the Council (presumably via the meetings of culture ministers with input from others no doubt) and the European Parliament (via the Culture Committee and others).  Watch out for your turn to comment at both national and European level.

In the meantime here is the proposed list of countries:

2020: Croatia and Ireland (and candidate)

2021:  Romania and Greece

2022:  Lithuania and Luxembourg

2023: Hungary and UK (and candidate)

2024: Estonia and Austria

2025: Slovenia and Germany

2026:  Slovakia and Finland (and candidate)

2027:  Latvia and Portugal

2028: Czech Republic and France

2029: Poland and Sweden (and candidate)

2030; Cyprus and Belgium

2031:  Malta and Spain

2032: Bulgaria and Denmark (and candidate)

2033: Netherlands and Italy

More Europe or More European?

“More Europe”;  “Less Europe”:  calls triggered by the eurozone crisis and the inability of the politicians to solve it for more than a few months or even weeks at a time.   Pro-Europeans seek More Europe; euroseptics seek and look forward to the demise of the EU, or at least its fading away to a trading alliance.

The euro crisis highlights a major weakness of the EU, one known for many years. The Euro-elite quite simply ignore the citizens.  The Monnet method, little by little so no-one notices has been exploded.  Everyone notices now (except the euro-elite of course).

Do we have a European Union of citizens?  We take advantage of its many advantages from cheaper  roaming phone calls, ease of low-cost flights, open borders and a common currency for many, no visas and only slightly longer border queues for the rest.  But the crisis has shown the cultural fault lines.   North/South; hardworkers/skivers; tax payers/tax avoiders.  A stereotype blame game.   Perceptions are far ahead of reality.

Unity in diversity, perhaps the weakest euro-jargon phrase ever thought up, hardly papers over the cracks. Indeed it has become the clarion call for less Europe.

The Euro-elite call for more Europe, for a more cultural Europe.   Mega superstars,  Rem Koolhaas and Luc Tuymans, riding on global success and commercial marketing, call for deeper citizenship based on a shared culture.   Throughout history there have been sharing of cultures in architecture, in classical music, in some literary areas.  The Beatles to Lady Gaga to  Adele transcend anything the Eurovision Song Contest throws up.  The Soul for Europe meets in November in Berlin focussing on “civil society” and cultural values.    The Danish EU presidency brings together more eminent culture players in “Team Europe“, including the obligatory conference in Brussels for probably the same audience as all the events in Brussels attract.  The Institute of Ideas brings Euro-sceptics for a debate whether the EU will be the death of democracy.

But is the European Commission starting to wake up?   Tucked away in a corner, hidden from the headlines, it has asked us for our views on being European citizens. And on those areas we care about when we move between countries.    Moving from one country to another, baffling administrative arrangements,  discriminatory tax arrangements, denial of democratic rights. inconsistent health  and social security arrangements.

The Commission produced a very good report in 2010 on the problems of the “free movement of people”. Their scorecard on progress is a masterpiece of hiding just how few changes have taken place.

They are asking for your opinion.     If you move within the EU.. as a tourist, as a student, as a worker, a retiree. If you are in a partnership with someone from another member country, or want to live in another, or vote or fall ill, now is your chance to have your say.

“No taxation without representation” worked in 1776.  About time it worked in the EU; we  should be able to vote in national elections where we live as well as European Parliament and local.  Tax rules explicitly discriminate against fellow EU citizens.

For me it seems absurd that after 60 years European governments have done so little to facilitate free movement of people: surely the most fundamental cultural aspect of a European Union of citizens.  More Europe means just that: More European.

Make your views known.

How #loveculture will backfire on Israel’s public diplomacy propaganda

#Loveculture becomes a twitter clash this week.   The Israeli Embassy in London is planning a twitter campaign  to try to offset negative publicity surrounding the Habima Theatre company at the Globe in London. The company is due to perform ” The Merchant of Venice” within the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Leading British actors and directors, including Emma Thompson, Caryl Churchill and Mark Rylance have called for a withdrawal of the invitation.   A campaigning group from Israel commented:

 this play includes the role of “Shylock, the most famous and controversial Jewish character in the theatre canon” – which naturally, presents particularly acute problems and dilemmas to an Israeli theatre. 
As told to the Israeli media, the Habima Theatre did not sidestep the problems inherent to this particular element of the Shakespeare canon, but faced them and dealt with them in a socially engaged and committed manner. According to the designated director Ilan Ronen, Habima’s presentation of “The Merchant of Venice” will emphasize the issue of xenophobia – persecution of the Jew in particular but also of hatred of ethnic and religious minorities in general. As such, it would have of direct relevance to audiences in contemporary Britain, as in all times and places.

The problem rests with Habima’s performances last year in the illegal settlements in occupied West Bank:

In the past year, two large settlements – Ariel in the northern part of the West Bank and Kiryat Arba in its south – set up “Halls of Culture” and asked theatres to come and present their plays there. Last year, a large group of Israeli theatre professionals – actors, stage directors, playwrights – declared they would not take part in such performances; among them were such well-known people as Joshua Sobol, Edna Mazia, Shmuel Hasfari and Anat Gov. For several weeks, this was a major issue on the Israeli public agenda, and the aforementioned Israeli theatre professionals have received much support from colleagues abroad, such as Stephen Sondheim, Mary Rodgers, Tony Kushner, Mandy Patinkin, Theodore Bikel, Mira Nair, Julianne Moore, Vanessa Redgrave, Hal Prince, Roseanne Barr and other Broadway and Hollywood stars.
( http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/blog/breaking-stephen-sondheim-julianne-m… )

The dissident Israeli theatre professionals have argued that the West bank settlements had been created in violation of International Law and with the specific aim of blocking any possibility of achieving peace with the  Palestinians; that the expropriation of land in an occupied territory and the creation and maintenance of armed settlement enclaves are the very opposite of what is commonly termed “Culture”; and that therefore, a settlement maintaining a “Hall of Culture” was a blatant contradiction in terms.
It is especially noteworthy that Ariel and Kiryat Arba, like most settlements, are surrounded by walls and fences, closely guarded by soldiers and their own armed security personnel. A theatrical performance in a settlement is by definition a performance to an exclusively Israeli audience, with Palestinians living even in the nearest village being physically excluded from any chance of attending.

Despite all of the above, however, on this issue the management of Habima has taken a position which is remote from any kind of social engagement. Claiming to be “non-political”, the management has reiterated its decision to perform in West Bank settlements, “like everywhere else”. Moreover, the management specifically promised Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture in the Netanyahu Government, to “deal with any problems hindering such performances”, i.e. to pressure recalcitrant actors into taking part in them, even against the dictates of their conscience.  And it must be pointed out that for several months, Habima has indeed sent out its actors to hold theatrical performances in West Bank settlements, on a regular basis.

There are reports that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is providing £10,000 towards the costs.

The Israeli Embassy emailed on Friday to British groups:

As part of the campaign around Habima’s performance at the Globe this coming week, we are aiming to get something relevant trending on Twitter. After careful consideration, we have decided to use the hashtag #LoveCulture as it is short enough to fit on a substantial tweet and won’t be taken at first glance as a political statement.

The email even includes suggested tweets. (Don’t be fooled when you read;

  • Fantastic seeing the foremost Hebrew speaking theater company perform the Merchant of Venice @the_globe #LoveCulture
  • Was great to hear @edvaizey enjoyed watching @HabimaTheatre…did he understand any of it though? #LoveCulture

Public diplomacy or propaganda?    The only countries which seem to orchestrate explicit social media campaigns seem to be those on the defensive with something to hide; those outside the international norms: China’s famous 50 centers spring to mind.   The #loveculture tweets this week will rebound on Israel.  It will highlight their illegal occupation and settlement of the West Bank. , as will any future social media interventions so obviously supporting the government line.

It’s the same there: China and cultural diplomacy

There is an interesting diplomatic spat between USA and China at the moment.  No not the headline human rights case of Chen Guangcheng, now safely at a New York university (but not his family who are held as hostages in effect: a time-honoured tactic) .

The spat is over teachers at Confucius Institutes in the USA.   According to reports:

A policy directive sent by the U.S. Department of State to universities that sponsor Confucius Institutes suggests that the language and cultural centers that are a key piece of the Chinese government’s diplomatic outreach will have to change how they operate or fall afoul of American visa laws.

The memorandum, dated May 17, states that any academics at university-based institutes who are teaching at the elementary- and secondary-school levels are violating the terms of their visas and must leave at the end of this academic year, in June. And it says that, after a “preliminary review,” the State Department has determined that the institutes must obtain American accreditation in order to continue to accept foreign scholars and professors as teachers

State Department has said that it expects the issue to be resolved: it seems to link to a Chinese adminstrative move against foreign teachers in China.

The Chinese press has had a field day.  What struck me was how the comments to news stories are identical to comments about European cultural diplomacy activity and organisations.    Look at the comments in this report: on the 500,000 tweets on China’s own twitter system, Sina.

I oppose these kinds of Confucius studies organized by the government. It’s quite soured. How about our government spend more money on its own people? Confucius Institutes are really funny

I think it is quite normal. Chinese people haven’t made its domestic education good. How can they go to promote “Confucius Institutes”?!

Different values; same debates.


The new soft power player: people

Soft power is associated with nation states or groupings of states.  The “West’s ” soft power played a key role in ending the Cold War according to its proponents.  The more adventurous supporters go further: the “Beatles and demin” were more powerful than economic collapse and missiles.

The USA has soft power; the EU is trying to think of its soft power, China is embarking on a major soft power drive.

Nowadays the term soft power is used indiscriminately. Rather like public diplomacy a few years ago. It has become the fashion in thinking circles.

The term itself embodies two very opposite characteristics. Soft.. nice the cuddly.  The arts, schools, universities, academics talking to each other, consumer goodies.  It is extended into the universal values arena:  political groupings which accept defeat and opposition; democracy, religious freedom etc.

Power is overlooked.  Power is hard by definition.  This is not the area of mutual understanding and awareness to use another universal phrase.

Power means convincing others to do what you want them to do.. and which they are not doing now.

“Soft power is no power” is a common riposte from the hard powerists (trade, military, the world of sanctions, boycotts, leading up to invasions and conflict).  There is very little serious evaluation of whether soft power really works.  Lots of theory; lots of anecdotes, lots of belief and an increasing number of indices (see my earlier articles and here).  But where’s the evidence?  I’ll explore this in the next article in this series.

But there is a new soft power on the block:  people,  individual people.  It is likely that the online digital activism of Avaaz.org and others will block the relatively secretly organised international agreement on internet control:  ACTA.

Nellie Kroes, the European Commissioner says:

“We have recently seen how many thousands of people are willing to protest against rules which they see as constraining the openness and innovation of the internet. This is a strong new political voice,” Kroes said in a speech at the Re:publica conference in Berlin. “And as a force for openness, I welcome it, even if I do not always agree with everything it says on every subject.”

“We are now likely to be in a world without [the stalled US act] SOPA and without ACTA. Now we need to find solutions to make the internet a place of freedom, openness, and innovation fit for all citizens, not just for the techno avant-garde,” Kroes continued.

It was not many thousands. It was millions.  from many countries.   Several governments are going to be seriously angry at the ending of ACTA.   Soft power in the hands of people.  Do I hear democracy by citizens rather than democracy by vested interests?


We’re all getting old together…

The EU never ceases to amaze me.  I am an ardent pro-European, a very strange beast for a Brit. My first departure from the Labour Party came in the  1975 referendum on the UK’s membership: not done for a student politician to be in favour of the YES vote to stay in.   (Iraq before you ask).

But at times it is demoralising to be so easily deflated by another Euro-idea.  I picked up a leaflet in Brussels today extolling  the ” European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations”.  It’s worth looking at that phrase again…go back and slowly digest every word and add your own interpretation. 

Older people are a large and growing part of the EU’s population. This rapidly ageing population is changing our societies in important and fundamental ways. Unfortunately, ageing is often seen as a problem, presenting challenges to the age structure of the workplace, the sustainability of social protection schemes and the organisation and financing of health and long-term care services

Well they got that right.  In Spain the government ends free prescriptions for pensioners; in many countries pensions are frozen or cut as part of the “we are all in this together” austerity measures required by the neo-cons and Germans (for different reasons but same effect). The UK changes a tax benefit,, the granny tax.  The pension age is increased so we need to work longer, normally for lower benefits whilst the younger generation campaign for the older workers to leave the workforce in order for jobs to become available to the NEET  and 800 euro generations.  Discussions centre on how benefits, paid  in advance by workers over their working careers, should now be withdrawn.   Plans and schemes to attract older people to cultural activities are withdrawn (free transport  schemes, educational programmes); care centres closed or privatised.

Governments must have signed up to the idea of the year.  Shame no-one told them they were meant to actually do something positive.  My best wishes to the hundreds of networks and organisations working in the field, many of them facing budget cuts as part of the “there is no alternative to pain” policies.

Me?  I’ll age actively, but slowly.