Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Interculture and Conflict

Conflict is a cultural phenomen. All attempts to define conflict in purely political, economic or religious terms are doomed to fail. And if conflict is cultural, than the healing process must begin with cultural means. There is no greater challenge today, both globally and locally, than the constructive exchange between diverse cultures, religions and peoples.

There are many threats to this exchange. Fragmentizing populations - dividing and conquering - is a common tactic for some politicians and religious leaders throughout the world. A key drift that informs this tactic: Power.

I visited Belfast a couple of weeks ago, to speak at the Belfast One City Conference  http://www.onecityconference.com. Well-organised, warm and informal, The conference organizers had managed to gather some of the shining business, cultural, political and activist leaders from both sides of an historically troubled city. The clearest sensation: that a thriving city is a cultural city and everyone there knows it.

Power evolves by establishing hierarchies. Populations are effectively manipulated through fear. We define ourselves by excluding the Other. Barriers, real and imagined, are built to prevent healthy exchange. We lock ourselves into definitions of ”us and them”, magnifying differences instead of negotiating them.

I was first introduced to community activities and city center re-invention plans. I was then put in the competent hands of four men, about my age. 2 republicans and 2 loyalists, former combattants. They showed me essential places in their community, where cultural symbols (murals, meeting places) and defense architecture (walls, meshed windows, metal barriars) were intertwined. They worked now with getting the community behind changing the neighborhood story, re-designing public art and public space. A sincere work being done by these men, fine-tuned by years of personal experience with the consequences of cultural conflict.

Power deriving from fear is a manifestation of ethnocentricity and cultural narcissism.

Shared space is essential for dialogue. Our personal histories are different but our playing field is common. There are essential spaces shared throughout the world: the school, the workplace, the sports arena, media networks, the town square and other urban gathering places. Cultural spaces like theatres, concert houses, museums and heritage sites are among the most important.

Belfast is a city making plans to build, re-construct and re-invent their shared space. There are numerous cultural centers struggling for support, a multitude of ideas and inventiveness. This is a healthy sign recognized by the new leadership growing up in Northern Ireland. But who will dare to invest?

Conflict is Culture. Cultural stategies can also heal conflict, not by silencing or sidestepping, rather by confronting and engaging. Give people places to meet and things to do and they will step beyond.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

we are more: a campaign call

Text delivered at the Culture Action Europe’s conference The Time is Now, including the launch of the Campaign for Culture we are more

Chris Torch, Brussels, 8 october 2010

Artists! Authors! Performers! Makers of Policy! Makers of Spectacle! Soundmakers!

We are rooted in our communities and we cross frontiers. We are more than local citizens.
We are profoundly European in practice and ethics. Although we are more than simply of European origin.

We defend a culture of quality, shared and accessible. We are more than vendors.
We imagine a democratic Europe: fair and curious. We are more than just a few votes.

We must re-learn living together, with fundamental rights - individual and collective - in sustainable development, both environmental and social. We are more than consumers.

We believe that re-thinking culture and its public policies is possible. More than possible. Essential.

Spectators! Opera singers! Street buskers! Funders! Storytellers! Civil servants! Citizens!

We are many actors that shape contemporary European cultures. We are more than many.
We are committed to education and active citizenship. We are more than producers.

And we are confident in our empowering capacities. We are more than bridge builders. We move the rivers.
We can open doors to participation in public space. We are more than observers.

We are ready to engage in responsible dialogue with decision makers. We are more than lobbyists.

We already are engaged with the civil society, with funders and audiences. We are more when we recognize different beliefs and approaches and respond to them.

Let’s go beyond hesitation and fear stemming from crisis situations. Let’s re-imagine public investment, contribute to human and social capital - Europe’s most precious asset.

The time has come to invest seriously in culture. What’s more: in education, in justice and in our natural resources.

The time has come, within our borders and with our international partners, to invest in collaboration.

The time has come to give culture the means to contribute to a collective re-invention of the European project.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Culturewatching ...

I was invited to Brussels for a gathering organized by The Council of Europe, together with the EU Commission for Culture, Culture Action Europe and other organizations. It was part of the Council's CultureWatchEurope program. 

Nearly 200 people met at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) building, among them several Ministers of Culture, State secretaries, Commission representatives as well as many people from the civil sector: networks, institutions and organizations. Considering the tough limitations that EU architecture (hierarchical room settings) puts on real conversation, the meeting was an enlightening and lively experience.
I had the privilege of moderating the plenaries but after (good) keynote speakers each day a considerable amount of time was given to discussion in smaller groups. An exceptional situation, as there were such clear and focused people participating. Nine groups around different themes within the main threads: Mainstreaming Culture, Cultural Diversity and - the most urgent maybe? - Resources.
The first day was animated by Jeremy Rifken, an American scientist and economic advisor to the European Union. He began by announcing that it was quite rationally already too late to save the planet. The challenges were no longer, because we have already failed. That said, he went on to propose empathy as the primary force of change, something he underlined was built into our dna code. And - to summarize - only parenting, schools/education and cultural action can inspire the empathy we desperately need to generate to survive. Economic, industrial and political strategies are insufficient.
This dark optimism hung in the background throughout the two days and, for a change, when the unavoidable but usually boring reports from the groups were given at the end - there was energy and humor and a common will to go home and get back to work.
What was remarkable also was the diversity of experts present, coming from both EU and wider Europe nations. This opened the perspective and manifested the strength released when the Council of Europe (representing 47 countries), the EU (27) and the civil society (millions of citizens) join forces on cultural rights and policies.
Earth-shattering? Absolutely not. But after joining many conferences, it was uplifting to leave with a sense of common purpose. Not empty debate to "convince each other" but to be changed by each other. A transnational breath of fresh air from the staid and uninspiring election campaign we are winding up in Sweden, where culture, if mentioned at all, is about events, cuts, and technology.


See the attached link to know more about CultureWatchEurope

Monday, November 9, 2009

20 years ago …

When the Berlin Wall fell, my sense of elation was mixed with surprise and insecurity about the future. I had been living in Europe already 14 years, 12 of them in Sweden. I had toured with performances in East Germany, Poland, the Baltic States and Czechoslovakia, during some difficult years. I had come to know people on “the other side of the Wall” as colleagues, spectators and concerned citizens.

For many Western Europeans the confusion was intense. Europe had changed radically after World War II. Dark shadows had fallen across large areas of our common cultural and intellectual map. I remember a close friend saying, as we watched the TV newscasts from Berlin: “It feels as if someone is returning stolen parts of my body - Budapest my arm, Kraków my leg, Praha one of my lungs. I can write, walk and breathe again.” Our common cultural heritage was re-weaved - or at least the possibility suddenly existed.

But is that really what happened? Did a new free exchange of ideas and initiatives erupt? Did the great encounter between writers, philosophers, political activists and poets take place? Is Europe unified?

The obvious answer is negative. In fact, Europe has never have been so fragmented as it is today. The domination of the West, politically and economically, is still status quo. And to make things worse, there are second and third class Eastern nations, outside the EU, outside major investment schemes of global capitalism, outside Fortress Europe.

What are the cultural opportunities in this fragmented reality?

Before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, many active exchanges took place between artists and audiences. A political freeze was on and the West had blocked economic development in Communist countries. But people kept contact with one another. Books were exchanged. Theatre performances were shown on both sides of the Wall. Movies were passed along with scripts and poems. On my visits 1980-1989, I carried with me coffee, oranges and printing machinery.

Today, the barriers are less invisible. Globalization rules and regionalism is weakened. The nations around the Black Sea have limited cultural exchange. The separation of languages, political history and blocked mobility makes relations difficult.

We have so much to learn. Avoiding neo-colonialism and cultivating mutual transformation. The experiences and competence in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and even the new EU countries Bulgaria and Romania are not yet incorporated into the European picture. Let’s start with culture!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Re-creating our originality …

Watching my neighbors in the southern Italian village where I spend my free time. Fiorenzo, his sister and her husband, three daughters and a son, are gathering olives. They shake the trees one after one to get the earliest and greenest olives to fall. Several days of work plus hours at the olive press: the result is about 50 liters of olio extra virgine. You can’t pay a just price for this olive oil.

Another neighbor - who works in the nearby city of Salerno and commutes 3 hours everyday - told me over a coffee why he chooses to remain in this small village with his family. He mentions security, nature, food, the intimacy (sometimes painful) of a village. And at the same time he likes working in Salerno, with pulse and diversity.

He says suddenly and calmly: “We need to re-create our originality. We can’t return to something but we can re-invent it. Only then will our village have a function in a future world. Everyone will want to live here.”

After visiting a number of resort areas in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Norway, Sweden and England during the last few years with Black/North SEAS, I understand his point. There seems to be two ways of responding to the challenges of coastal towns. Either romaticizing the past, desperately clinging to heritage. Or throwing it all out and chasing desperately after what people might want.

For a moment my neighbor had a new grip on the challenge: to re-create originality. To maintain the integrity of the community and offer it as a place for recreation, culture and exchange. Re-imagining the idea of civilization. Everyone will want to live there.

Together with Fiorenzo and his family, three other men from Poland and Romania will help with the olives the next few weeks. It is not a profitable business on this scale. But it is a community exercise in originality. Not folklore. Practical and tasteful.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Raising the stakes …

I was pleasantly surprised to see a wink towards culture in the latest series of budgets and counter-budgets at this early stage  in the campaign towards Swedish national elections 2010. A special focus was given to international and intercultural investment. The media missed it.

It began with the recently launched Proposition on Culture, presented by the current government as a political reaction to an earlier commissioned national survey on culture. The more radical and confused elements of the national survey have been put aside. The Minister for Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth offers a clear position on intercultural action, without proposing any extra resources. Instead, her budget refers to the present experiment - about 1 (one) million Euros annually for three years - and underlines the need for further analysis. This money runs out in 2010. Intercult is one of the organisations following defined international missions in return for this fragile subsidy.

The opposition - composed of social democrats, left democrats and the green party - offer a shadow budget including 2 (two) million Euros a year for three years, earmarked for intercultural action. A 100% increase. Maybe we should be content that the issue is even on the table. Maybe we should applaud and vote.

I am hoping - probably in vain - that increased investment in international exchange, as proposed by the opposition, might raise the stakes. Can Lena Liljeroth and her team offer other solutions? Which political narrative best incorporates a modern and progressive approach to interculture? Which alliance is willing to see cultural initiatives that cross borders as primary research and development for the European project? Which political alternative opens our perspectives internationally?

It seems like a good litmus test for the sustainability of any future Swedish government, living as we do in an immensely transnational environment.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize: Why Obama?

Many were surprised and some even shocked when Barack Obama was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009. Apart from the wish by the Nobel Committee in Norway to play a role in world politics (it seems often that the prize has been decided by what we HOPE someone meant and not by what he/she actually did ...), there may be a cultural rationale for the choice.

Barack Obama is the first major world leader with a clearly mixed cultural/ethnic background to take the stage. It is not his "blackness" which incites our imagination - rather the mixed signals that his roots and upbringing send. For the first time in modern history an American president underlines, both rhetorically and symbolically, the necessity of intercultural competence. He continues to tread sensitive territory, both when it comes to American self-image and the imagination that other peoples have about the USA.

Giving the Peace Prize to Obama is potentially a kiss of death, archiving him already into the history books simply by his election. Endowing greatness is also a way of marginalizing and disarming a leader. Icons are seldom effective implementors of change.

But one can also see it - as someone expressed it in the evening papers - as a "start package" for peace. Maybe it is a reflection on our growing sensation, throughout at least the Western world, that a combination of mixed background, dialogue skills and sincere curiosity about the Other is far preferable to demonization.

At the root of the debate is a cultural/political question. How do we speak with our opponents? How do we share responsibility for global issues like migration, climate change and human rights? What alternatives are there to military action? An essential change from confrontation to consensus seems to be taking place.

Barack Obama has awakened hope among many - apparently even in the Nobel Committee. The Litterature prize this year also reflects the intercultural question, with Herta Müller's German language against a relief of Romanian communism.

Have we begun to understand that hybridity arising from cross-cultural experience is in fact our future strength and not a reason for introversion and drawing hard and populist lines?