This isn’t the report I thought I’d be writing when I set off to a recent conference on participatory governance in culture (with my ace travelling companions, Leila Jancovich from the University of Leeds, and Dawn Fuller and Jon Price from arts organization Space2), in the Croatian port city of Rijeka. What I expected to be doing, alongside giving a paper based on my PhD research into artist-led initiatives and their long-standing engagement with forms of collectivity, was feeding back, through personal reflection, on the potential for participatory governance within the scope of Leeds’ bid to host the European Capital of Culture [ECoC] title in 2023 – informed by the debates and case studies brought together through this international gathering of over 100 participants from 30 nations. I wanted to use this opportunity to help inform and strengthen the work of the bid’s ‘engagement’ sub-group, where I make my contribution. However, when the bombshell from Brussels landed early on the morning of the 23 November, it changed everything. I approached the rest of the conference through differently-tuned ears, finally returning home rather unexpectedly feeling far more hopeful about the aftermath and the potential to turn a bad situation into a good one, than you might think. Let me explain.
Rijeka is hosting ECoC in 2020, and it’s evident from what we saw during our visit that, just over two years out, investment coming into the city is already achieving tangible results. For example, we visited the brand new Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art (MMSU), which opened just two months ago with a retrospective of the work of Tomislav Gotovac, the late and celebrated Serbian-born Croatian conceptual artist whose whole life seems to have been an elaborately-constructed performance. The Museum is now housed in the former Rikard Benčić palace in the west of the city, built in 1752 as the headquarters of a sugar refinery, where light and airy galleries have been sensitively crafted within the building’s beautifully restored and repurposed interiors. Prior to this, the Museum had been ‘squatting’ in a much smaller space in a building shared with the municipal library, which limited the potential for expansive, ambitious programming, and inhibited public access to the important collections. This move to a new home is a game-changer, and the palace sits among a suite of other derelict buildings all earmarked for redevelopment to house various cultural institutions, with funds to be made available through the ECoC title. So far so good – we’re all familiar by now with how the capital of culture framework can achieve these sorts of highly visible arts infrastructure projects. And lovely this one is.
However, later that day I made my way to an equally arresting, through rather different, former warehouse building (Delta 4) on the docks in the east of the city, to meet the artists who make up the Delta 5 collective. This artist-led initiative, with a dozen or so members, is the only organized studio provider in a city where the talent drain is acute due to post-industrial decline. Structural issues within the existing local visual arts provision and the national and sub-national political context mean that it’s particularly difficult to sustain a creative practice. To date, their activities remain seemingly invisible to the larger institutions and continue outside of the official 2020 programme. Over lunch which they prepared together, washed down with wine produced as an art project by Tomislav, one of the group’s members, from grapes sourced from a derelict vineyard near the city, they told me how their tenure in the building, where they occupy one half of a spacious floor, is uncertain due to its contested ownership. This long-running legal dispute between the city and the port authority shows no signs of resolving itself any time soon. In addition, an ominous ‘masterplan’ for redevelopment of the delta (a new ‘urban living’ quarter is envisaged) has recently emerged, raising the prospect of rising rents and the real threat of relocation should the city’s vision become a reality. This is ironically exactly the sort of major urban planning project that hosting ECoC could begin to lever. The offices of Rijeka2020 are about to move into the same building on the floor above, giving a temporary level of protection at least until the big year itself, but potentially simultaneously triggering a process of gentrification that artists rarely find themselves on the right side of in the long run.
In the meantime they continue to pay the rent, funding this themselves through the studio rents, funded in turn through part-time jobs such as lecturing at the city’s Academy of Applied Arts. The overhanging uncertainty however, coupled with lack of resources, is preventing them from developing a lovely room on their floor as a future residency and project space where they hope to host a public programme and exchanges with other groups and artists from Croatia and beyond. In other words, a familiar scenario of precarious invisibility, exacerbated to an extreme here by the absence of any funding schemes at national level which are currently accessible to them, as they are not a major public institution. This is a sobering reality that puts things into perspective somewhat for those of us who regularly complain about the imperfections of arts funding schemes at home. Only the relatively recent Kultura Nova Foundation, established in 2011 to provide a new framework for the support of civil society organizations working with contemporary arts and culture, offers a chink of light for the future – if the Delta 5 group can surpass their current, liminal status and overcome the immediate issues facing them to get onto an even keel.
Hopping back to the conference, these thoughts in mind, it was intriguing to hear the presentation given by Roland Zarzycki the following day, during one of the conference’s liveliest panel sessions, specifically focusing on the relationship between participatory governance and ECoC through local perspectives (although invitations to contribute to the debate had been extended to many former host cities prior to 2017, nearly all declined – which was interesting in itself). Roland’s entertaining presentation focused on his personal experience of being part of the delivery team for Wroclaw in Poland, which hosted ECoC last year – although he left the process in 2014 for reasons that soon became crystal clear. What he talked about was, in essence, the gap between anticipation, assumption and desire (the heady mix of things that can lead any of us to convince ourselves about something we think we want very badly) and the reality experienced in the cold light of day – which in this case amounted to one of frustration, disappointment, disillusionment and anger. What Roland termed ‘over-optimistic presuppositions’ about the potential for big, genuine and transformative change swirling around the initial elation of winning the competition, soon gave way to a feeling that the same old status quo was simply re-establishing itself through other means. The reality for Wroclaw was that five years wasn’t long enough to achieve meaningful transformation; that a major skills gap revealed itself – the capacity simply didn’t exist within the cultural sector to deliver the ambitious projects that everyone proposed; that genuine co-production and participatory action wasn’t at all facilitated by the internal competition for the available funds that the process effectively imposed upon the sector; and the realisation that the EU’s interest in monitoring and evaluation of the process (felt to be absent during the run-in to the year itself) only extended as far as demonstrating externally what an amazing success everything had been. In short, that belief and hard work weren’t in themselves enough to overcome the systemic issues inherent within the ECoC framework, and Roland’s perception was that international attention and relationships drifted away post-2016, the city returning to its prior status as ‘cultural desert’ (his description). In the event, nothing really changed.
During the following panel discussion, themes repeatedly emerged around the potential pitfalls of ‘festival’ type approaches, as opposed to one genuinely focused on process, and the dangers of ‘mission drift’ associated with stepping into a terrain where the agenda is being set by someone else. In response to questions from the floor, the panel, all experienced observers of the processes involved in ECoC, voiced their thoughts on this framework as one which lends itself to hit-and-run spectacle as opposed to genuinely participatory processes, and which encourages competition at the expense of collaboration. They also commented on the absence of an ‘ECoC clinic’ and the lack of knowledge transfer about their experiences between host cities. Acknowledging that the context of Wroclaw differs significantly from that of Leeds in important ways, and that Roland’s presentation was clearly coloured by bitter personal experience, this session was nonetheless sobering and left me deeply concerned for what ECoC might actually have meant for all of us working on the Leeds bid in the belief that hosting 2023 could be genuinely transformative for our city and its communities.
The conference itself was brilliantly organized and staged by Kultura Nova – three days of rich content shared by passionate cultural actors from Africa, Australia, India, North America, and right across Europe, including the UK. This growing global interest in the potential and absolute necessity of finding new participatory forms of governance, co-production and commoning which can better address the structural inequalities of societies internationally, was inspiring and galvanizing to witness and be part of. Leila Jancovich’s thought-provoking keynote address on the first morning set the tone for the whole event, urging caution in relation to a 50-year discourse on participation which has so far failed to address rising inequalities globally. As the conversation on participation has grown, so has public engagement in many ways been declining, evidenced for example in historically low voter turnout in western Europe. ‘Participation’ has become a term whose ubiquity and messy definition have led to potential meaninglessness. Leila’s provocation asked us to consider whether current discourse on participation exercises a form of social control that maintains the status quo, focusing too much on an idea of participation in culture that positions non-participants as a deficit, instead of valuing what people already do.
Time and time again across the three days, we heard that meaningful ‘participation’ is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. That wanting to explore co-governance means embracing the idea of a continuum – it’s a constantly evolving process – that will require tolerance and space for failure, setbacks and dissent. In approaching culture as a ‘contact zone’ between people, we need to consistently acknowledge and pay attention to the contested nature of this space, its push and pull. The risk is that participation, done carelessly, equals nothing more than empowerment-lite. And yet, so many engaging speakers shared information on faithful attempts all over the world to surmount these challenges in a bid to do things differently. Case studies on projects everywhere from Cosmo City in South Africa, to Bangalore in India, and much closer to home in Hebden Bridge bore testament to the ongoing and active struggle to forge local agency in the face of the intransigent dogma of cultural policy formation on a national and supra-national level.
The title of the Gotovac retrospective at MMSU was Crisis Anticipator – Don’t Ask Where We’re Going. Through his performance works which engage with filmic structures and devices, the artist spent his life playing with ideas of real and fictive (auto)biography. At this juncture, and after last week’s deeply disappointing news, Leeds has two options: we can continue writing a fictional biography of the Leeds which successfully bid to host ECoC in 2023, and everything we imagine that might have brought… or we can continue on the journey we’ve set out on together by another route, and with our eyes wide open – strengthening and deepening the real potential to embrace participatory governance as a principle for achieving the meaningful change that is so desperately needed across many facets of our city. I’m not a naysayer – I believe that, among the undoubted challenges, many valuable things have already happened through the 2023 conversation to date, and hopefully there is an energy and a will to find a way forwards, whether that turns out to be outside of ECoC or not. But having listened to everything that was said in Rijeka, it’s clear that from here, realistically we already need to think about 2033, 2043 and beyond. Real change requires generations. And we need to think very carefully about what we mean by ‘participation’ within the bid and whatever comes out of it. We can’t afford to regard culture as a toolbox for ‘fixing’ communities. We need to think about what is already happening under our noses that we just can’t see yet, in the way that Delta 5 were invisible to a conference happening literally 5 minutes’ walk away. For me personally, these three days in Rijeka will inform how I approach my role as a curator and as a citizen for many years to come.
Above all, the conference in Rijeka brought together what one speaker termed ‘a community of practice in a learning process’, and urged us to keep exploring, against the difficulties, how we can ‘DO IT TOGETHER’ better. An expression of optimism and promise for the future.
Thank you to Leeds2023 and the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds, who generously supported my travel to Rijeka and attendance at the conference. Participatory Governance in Culture: Exploring Practices, Theories and Policies. DO IT TOGETHER was at the Croatian Cultural Centre, Rijeka, from 22-24 November 2017. Many sessions were filmed and will be available on the conference website http://conference.participatory-governance-in-culture.net.