City and Culture

Crises create favorable conditions to search for a new place and role for culture in cities. Is culture just an excessive burden for their lean budgets, or can it help them get out of the basement?

In 2016, the city of Wroclaw will be designated as the European Capital of Culture (ECC). Until then, new problems will pile up and new civilizational challenges will be faced by the city and culture. Usually, such situations mean cuts for the cultural sector. And this is not only because of ignorance and prejudices—for example presented by people like Geert Wilders, author of populist slogans on costly “leftist hobbies.” In fact, this concerns culture itself: Its philosophy and practices; are they able to be heard along with development-related challenges; are they up to being innovative and self-critical; can they think ahead of their times? The fact that these days word has it that the avant-garde is dead means—aside from the aesthetic aspects, which after all should never be separated from social reality—that culture is not present at the frontline of change which is shaping our future, and that we sense this painful absence.

Undoubtedly, it’s the cities, which are at the forefront nowadays. They are where the top experimental laboratories are established and where people look for new solutions and models including the “smart city” or “creative industries.” With increasing urbanization, more than two-thirds of Europeans now live in urban areas. On the other hand, progressing gentrification and commodification deprive us of access to cities: citizens are driven out of the cities by consumers. And so you can observe urban movements coming into being, trying to revive social capital, urban space, common property and shared responsibility. It can be heard frequently that the city must be reinvented. In modern cities, marked by changing demographic structures and economic profiles, post-industrialism and immigrants, shrinking or expanding through their budding suburbs, revitalizing or tearing down whole districts, urgent problems include: new identity, integration, sustainable development and a vision of a good life.

So how does culture relate to these issues? It seems obvious that the model developed during the industrial era—based on representative edifices and high-budget institutions; hierarchical and centralized—is begging for a change. The same goes for numerous festivals and other short-term events, so generously supported by politicians and members of local governments, with public funds. You need not search for the avant-garde that a city and its inhabitants so badly need to face modern challenges there. Culture itself must be reinvented. We are heading for a time of a new counterculture; let’s hope it will not be a revolutionary destruction of the old order and exclusion of those who think differently— but rather a wise transformation which can integrate different groups. This is indispensable if we want to avoid—in analogy to post- industrial facilities—the birth of post-cultural venues; empty and useless buildings erected in the past for thousands spectators which will neither serve as places for creative production, nor will they be in demand.

The ECC project, preceded by six or seven years of preparatory work and lasting for one year, is one of the largest cultural projects of this sort. The initiative is normally accompanied by considerable funding and has huge promotional potential. Unfortunately, there is a risk that it will become just a big party, with hundreds of events, fireworks and attractions, and just one thing remaining after the end: a considerable shortfall in the budget, like in the case of Euro 2012. But, worse still, it perpetrates the concept of culture as a phenomenon which exists in parallel to the fundamental problems of the inhabitants: something incidental, wasteful and superficial. In this understanding, culture is merely a spectacle with an impressively promoted message. Sometimes this striking form even replaces the inherent value and efficiency of artistic activity. Oliver Wainwright, a journalist for The Guardian, visited Marseille, the current ECC, and lamented the cheap interior of a new venue constructed to host contemporary art though its external design seemed attractive. What he noticed is that “it reflects perhaps the most prominent symptom of the Capital of Culture: wherever it descends, it results in a spasm of accelerated projects, favoring exterior image and the power of spectacle over long-term, joined-up thinking.”

For Wroclaw, ECC also means celebration, promotion and new investments. But most of all, it is a great opportunity to develop and implement new ideas in terms of the creation and functioning of culture in the city. We are working out a concept, which I call “deep culture.” In contrast to the“festivalization” of culture, this idea aims to pass from just an “event” to the notion of “cultivare,” understood as the re-immersion of cultural activities into the organic, daily sphere, developed in the process of long duration. This is a contemporary continuation of active culture, initiated in the Wroclaw-based Laboratory Theatre. The former abandoned the traditional division into actors and spectators; it was marked by openness to joint creation by everyone (even though under communism in Poland it had only a limited potential for development by few participants). This goes further than the so-called “art for social change.” It tries to ingrain innovative artistic work in the local communities to a greater extent than a one-off project of a guest artist ever could. “Deep culture” is egalitarian. It is not a better form of creativity than others are, it does not create a closed circle. And precisely for this reason it is “deep.” It tries to penetrate and bring together all domains of life. The process of creation, in which inhabitants participate, is equally important as its end result.

How does the concept of “deep culture” translate into practice? In cooperation with cultural institutions, festivals and social organizations, we are creating laboratories, which for several years will be preparing the 2016 program. Thus, the Capital of Culture will no longer act as a venue for events but rather as a “factory for creation.” Our film festival has got its own “art house” cinema where for the whole year, apart from presenting sophisticated films, educational and workshop activities are performed. The Wroclaw storytelling festival is being transformed into a “story house”: open for the memories and experiences of inhabitants whose input is transposed into art. The opera is returning to its sources: leaving its edifice and heading for the neighboring tavern; the libretto to be created on the basis of a concrete social context. Along with eminent artists, it involves members of excluded groups. In a neglected city district, a ”photography district” is being born with displays in staircases of tenement houses, bus stops and abandoned harbor venues; there, the camera is a tool which involves inhabitants in the cultural life. We have already established almost fifty such laboratories and there are more to come. There we will raise “city artists” for whom the fabric of Wroclaw and its relations with the region will serve as their proper atelier, a place for creative exploration. Thanks to this initiative, 2016 may give rise to a process of repossessing culture for the city: not the one known from museums for contemporary art, but genuine avant-garde.

Krzysztof Czyżewski

Krzysztof Czyżewski is director of the deep culture program, festival Wroclaw— European Capital of Culture 2016.

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