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EXCLUSIVE. Ecoc, what kind of future? Interview with Chris Torch

Time capsule of 27 ECOC neighbourhoods Time capsule of 27 ECOC neighbourhoods Credits by Rijeka 2020

After having interviewed Steve Green, Bob Scott and Franco Bianchini, today we ask the same questions to another ECOCs expert, Chris Torch.

He founded Intercult, where he served as Artistic Director. He has conceived and led co-productions within the European Neighborhood, reflected in long-term projects SEAS, 2003-2010 and CORNERS. He led the Artistic Unit at Timisoara 2021 and joined the artistic leadership for winning bids to become European Capitals of Culture for both Matera 2019 and Rijeka 2020. He co-authored a major study on Audience Development, commissioned by the EU. He served on the Executive Committee for Culture Action Europe (2006-2018), earlier on the Boards of The European Museum Forum and IETM. He served as Senior Expert/Culture on programming the EU House at SXSW 2020. He is presently commissioned by the Cultural Relations Platform (EU) to map interest by EU-based arrangers to present artists from South Africa and surrounding countries. He also serves as a consultant for Coimbra 2027 and is active within the European network AREA.

 

After 35 years, does the ECOC program still have a future?

As long as the European Union has a future, entitling cities/regions for cultural effort and excellence will surely also have a purpose. But - exactly like the EU - the programme must undergo strenuous re-invention, adapting to changing contexts and cultural tendencies, if it will thrive, not only survive.

So, the question is not IF there is a future for European Capitals of Culture but WHAT KIND of future? The implementation of the title needs to be updated radically.

After working together with a number of ECoC cities, over many years and phases, it becomes clear to me that “tradition” (only 35 years, a short time) has become an obstacle. Change in the programme is far slower than the shifting sands of inter//local culture. While the title empowers cities with recognition and tools for cultural development, the economic reality for local governments has undermined any serious investment.

There will be a future for both the European Project and the ECoC programme only if the EU dares to stand for the values it proposes. This means substantial resources and a pro-active engagement for the making of European Capitals of Culture, not simply leaving a fragile title balancing in the insensitive hands of local powers. The road must a collaborative one, based on well-defined conditions.

In an earlier interview, Franco Bianchini proposed requiring a “joint venture” between two different EU cities/countries in the same year. This could be an excellent pre-condition, turning the ECoC each year into a bridge-building action, rather than a competition. It would be a clear sign that the intention is European cohesion and not simply city branding.

Steve Green suggests that the title be given on the basis of what’s actually done, the application process becoming a kind of pilot investment over 3 years, instead of an imagined - but not realizable - programme. Far too often in recent years, the gap between intention and reality has widened. It seems as if candidate cities are ready to promise anything and there are few mechanisms to hold them to their promises, once the title is awarded. Developing Steve’s proposal further, it might be a good idea to invest already in the candidacy stage in a number of cities, combining both EU and local/national financing.

Clearly the EU cannot maintain the high standards and expectations connected to a Capital of Culture, without becoming a co-financer. The prize at the end is simply not sufficient to have any influence. If it is truly a European Capital of Culture, then Europe must have a stake. The goal is innovation and experiment. Municipal and national governments alone are simply not motivated enough to take risks. The title loses impact and a unique profile.


What can the pandemic teach European capitals of culture?

Pandemics don’t teach anything - they simply ravage societies and lives.

But sometimes our collective response to a crisis can be constructive. We practice collaboration and empathy, we raise our standards of leadership, we re-value our time spent with our closest communities.

From a cultural programming and policy perspective:

a) We have experienced the breakdown of increasingly large-scale cultural events. Festivals, events and cultural capitals had already approached overkill before covid 19; the severe and sudden restrictions caused by the virus has caused major damage to the entertainment and event industry.

But the cultural sector has shown incredible capacity to find new forms of interaction, refining “cultural intimacy” through neighbourhood actions, balcony concerts, interactive online gatherings. And as it becomes increasingly possible to gather again, there are numerous examples of small-scale, mobile and de-centralized festivals popping up throughout Europe. Participatory creation and long-term interventions have been welcomed and developed, by both audiences and artists.

One inspiring example was the 27 NEIGHBORHOODS project initiated by Rijeka 2020, one of the two ECoC cities hit hard by the pandemic early in their year. While many events were stopped and economic problems grew, grassroots initiatives reaching into small and defined communities carried on, flexible and locally motivated.

b) We have experienced that the EU, confronted with a health crisis on a major scale, found resources and capacity to seriously intervene. Although the debate still rages about the efficiency of the transnational response to covid 19, knowledge was shared, research was facilitated and a collective impulse for change was cultivated.

If the same intensity of strategic cooperation was invested in the human crisis we face, especially in urban contexts, there might be some hope of re-imagining cultural relations. Connecting with efforts to meet the simultaneous environmental crisis could be the next important step in our process.

The European Capitals of Culture are potentially powerful laboratories for urban change. They must be the result of coordinated action at all levels (EU, National, regional, local) and in close dialogue with the cultural sector and its audiences.


In addition to the European dimension and the relationship between cities and citizens, what should the cultural programs of the ECoC focus on?

Each city must establish its own significant themes and actions, this is the beauty of the programme. But obviously, there are common challenges and tendencies. The Arts and Culture are constantly responding to the conditions from which they grow; the Capitals of Culture must consistently take the pulse.

Europe and relations with the rest of the world is gaining in importance. Efforts with “cultural diplomacy” and improved cultural relations beyond European borders is a priority. Because of the potential scale of the ECoC programme, also budget-wise, opening windows to non-Western cultures could be a focus for the appropriate city.

Obviously, digital arts and communication will become a priority, not in the least following the pandemic. Here, I send out a warning: a different and potentially more appropriate response to restrictions on public gatherings might be “cultural intimacy” - reviving localness and creating circuits of activities, de-centralized, targeted. I think that future ECoCs - especially considering they are most often smaller cities with close proximity - can develop cost-efficiently a program of distribution and locally activated activities, in close collaboration with European and other invited artists. This could be a focus all by itself.


The European Commission, from our point of view, is quite weak on the communication front of the ECoC. What could it do to disseminate the program among European citizens?

I can only agree - the EU is generally dull and ineffective with communication in general.

In fact - one way that the European Commission could contribute directly to the ECoC cities would be to subsidize the design and implementation of Marketing & Communications initiatives for entitled cities. A marketing budget connected with the criteria for promotion would guarantee a more professional and locally rooted strategy.

 

Many nations have invented national cities of culture, isn't there a risk of overlapping with the ECoC?

I don’t see any real risk, certainly not in terms of people getting bored with culture. There is never enough investment and every instrument that encourages strategic cultural thinking is welcome.

In fact - despite the many difficult experiences of some ECoC cities in the last years - it is a sign of admiration for the basic vision that other regions of the world and individual countries follow suit.

However - more collaboration between the different Cultural Capital initiatives would be needed to get further benefits. Connecting programmes, co-production and co-communication could be increased.

Serafino Paternoster

Ecocnews Founder, Journalist, repentant jazz guitarist, music critic and film lover.

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