Carte Blanche at the European Culture Forum 2011

Well!  That was pretty amazing! Just under a thousand artists, practitioners, academics, intermediaries and bureaucrats, all in a room for two days talking about the role of Culture – more specifically, looking at the implications for culture in terms of globalisation, digitisation, skills, investment and human rights – fabulous stuff!  Every now and then, you go to one of these Brussels EU conferences and steel yourself to get through it because, sure as eggs is eggs, there will inevitably be some boring topics, stultifying speakers, and arcane debate.  Not this time!  From Jan Willem Sieburgh of the Rijksmuseum showing how they are using digital technology in extraordinary, humorous and engaging ways to vastly increase their audience reach globally, to Chris Torch’s inspiring and passionate approach to the skills issue, to the wonderful Professor Pier Luigi Sacco of IULM in Milan, whose presentation on cultural economics, giving hard findings on the huge impact that cultural participation has on well being – absolutely astonishing statistics that need to be hardwired into every EU policy coordinator in Brussels – it was a hugely stimulating two days.

Pier Luigi described culture as ‘the social software to manage the complexity of contemporary societies and economies’ – indicating clearly that it should be both inclusive and participative to maximise its impact – and went on to describe our current times as being in Culture 3.0, i.e. moving from industrial and market concepts to the new Communities of Practice, generating both turnover and also indirect value for social development, impacting on Innovation, Welfare, Sustainability, Social Cohesion, new Entrepreneurship, soft power, and local identification.  All fabulous stuff, and backed up by real stats, showing , for one small example, that Sweden, which is regularly noted as No I in Most Innovative Country polls (see latest R Florida polls has only 7% of its population NOT engaged in cultural participation! Couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for poets though – apparently, poetry is the only artform that has a negative effect on well-being!!  (Pier Luigi and his team are even now digging into why this should be!)

I forgot to say that the reason I was there, apart from interest, of course, was that I had been invited to give the Carte Blanche (sort of ‘agent provocateur’) before the Skills panel.  I invoked Ken Robinson as well as others as I spoke very quickly  on Education, HE, Entrepreneurship, Collaboration/Innovation and Digitisation.  I ended by doing a quick quiz on lateral thinking to demonstrate how we all just get into established ways of thinking.  It caught most people out, I think, and caused mild uproar, but at least everyone woke up!  (A German colleague came over to me afterwards and told me that what we call the ‘graveyard’ session (i.e. straight after lunch) the Germans call ‘soup-coma’ – too, too delicious – I’ll use it all the time now!)

One interesting event was that we were treated to an object lesson in how the Commissioners make their decisions.  One ‘brave’ (IS that the word??) representative of policy coordination responded to the panel on investment with a dogged determination to insist that there is still no proof of the value of culture in creating revenue and employment.  It was as though everything that had gone before had not happened.  He kindly proposed to give us ‘guidelines’ about how to access EU funding but seemed resistant to the idea that, in fact, it should be us giving him the guidelines.  He exhorted us to increase our engagement with cross disciplinary collaboration but failed to see the irony in the fact that the different DGs don’t talk to each other –  the fact that DG of Education and Culture and the DG of Enterprise and Industry have created this unexpected and most welcome alliance has not yet impacted on the other DGs who clearly still see us as an  irrelevance! Funny, I thought that, in a global knowledge economy, those arguments has been won – we clearly still have a lot to do!

Apart from that short but critical dialogue, however, the debates were good, interesting and generally positive.  At the end, though we were all brought up short by the presentation by Belarus Free Theatre.   Of course, the title is bitterly ironic.  It was deeply moving and absolutely horrifying that such things can be being allowed to happen in an EU country.  In a way, it gave the lie to everything we were talking aboutthe role of culture in society.  Whilst such terrible things are happening, so overtly, so utterly without impunity, how can we call ourselves a civilised society?  It is the responsibility of all of us – I’ll try and get a copy of the presentation and post it up – but you can probably google (try Natalia Kaliada, or the theatre company) – and then at least send a letter to your MEP  – help us to make a noise about this.  It’s unforgiveable.

Anamaria Wills  E:    T: anamariacida