Finding new models for doing cultural exchange
What does good cultural relations work look like today? How can cultural relations work be fair? As jury members, Yemisi Mokuolu and Kateryna Botanova were tasked with finding the best pilot projects in the European Spaces of Culture programme. In a conversation with EUNIC Director Gitte Zschoch they discuss the value and role of European cultural relations today.
Kateryna, as jury member for European Spaces of Culture, you recently gave feedback on the 32 submissions that did not make it to the second round. In hindsight, did the jury overlook relevant projects?
KB I think we made a good choice. Going over the projects confirmed or reconfirmed it. I also feel a bit of sadness as I believe that out of the remaining projects there were some really good ideas that maybe required more work, consideration, more development, maybe coaching.
The concept of European Spaces for Culture is about creating shared places where people come together on an equal footing, it is not about exporting European spaces all over the world. What do you think about the word ‘European’ in the title – would it be better if we called the project Shared Spaces of Culture?
YM Yes, because after all, sharing and being equal is the objective of the programme. Nobody owns the space – we are all in the same space. Everyone should feel included, so in principle, why should it be called European even though Europe is the main promoter of the project?
KB I would also definitely say yes. If what we are trying to find is a common space for mutual learning and exchange, it is about equal access, equal ownership and being open. Europe has quite a history of casting a long shadow over large parts of the world. It is a good time now to find new ways of cooperation and co-creation that would be important to everyone.
So when we refer to European values, is that something we can confidently put forward or should we give space for the values of our partners?
YM There is no single answer to this question – whatever we do has to be appropriate to the context, as each country reacts differently, especially in terms of their relationship with Europe. Specific consultations need to take place and be conducted very responsibly to understand the local context and relationship with Europe. Engaging in this way is important because it encourages the producers to go out and consult with audiences and collaborators and find the appropriate solutions.
KB Very good question. What we actually call European val¬ues aren’t they actually global values, human values in general? Freedom, freedom of speech and expression, openness, fairness and access to culture. If that’s what we’re talking about it’s not necessarily European. We could perhaps say that maybe Europe is more aware of these values, more concerned about them. This awareness can enable various collaboration models that would create open spaces to share these values in different parts of the world. Isn’t it about bringing people, artists from different backgrounds and cultures together to work on something new and challenging for everyone involved? Then it becomes a global process, a global exchange.
What we are trying to do with this project is find new ways of doing culture together with people and communities across the world. Why is the project relevant to you?
YM For once, there is an opportunity to build a shared experience so we can do good together with local cultural actors. The only way we can do this is to create a framework for common understanding and a way to communicate with each other. So often people are divided and are not able to embody each other’s cultural responses. Can you imagine communicating in several different countries at the same time and being able to have a common understanding of the same concepts? This is why European Spaces of Culture is interesting to me. Changes emerge when we are in the position to exchange and work within the framework of culture.
KB Right now, the world is closing down, physically and emotionally but we have not been living in a particularly open world before the pandemic. Whenever this is over, we might be separated with even more boundaries, so the need to be sensitive to the knowledge and the worlds of other people will be much greater than just unique and indispensable tool that can create more sensitive environments, more open and attuned to different forms of knowledge and understanding. The questions about European and universal values, shared spaces and new forms of collaboration, mutual listening and the role of culture that we are asking ourselves in this project, are most timely and challenging. That’s what is very important and it resonates with what I do in other projects.
For a long time, in international relations culture was associated with soft power. Money was used to set the agendas top-down. Projects like European Spaces of Culture are indispensable in changing this.
One element we incorporated into this project is a two-stage application process. If projects are successful in the first round, they then receive 10,000 euros to further deveop their initial idea into a fully developed proposal. Do you think this approach is working?
YM I think it should be one of the core principles of the EUNIC clusters: the value of engaging with your environment constantly and building solid relationships, so that when you’re applying for any project you immediately have a network ready to develop it. I think it’s great there was that incentive but I find it folly to be giving money to people to do things they should be doing anyways as a standard good practice. You should not have to count on such a financial incentive to find partners to design or produce projects. Focusing on developing a broad range of local partnerships should already be in place and not be grant-driven.
How can Europe be fair when the Europeans are bringing the funding, the framework and infrastructure to make projects happen? How can genuine shared ownership be achieved in these circumstances?
KB Changing modes of perception and power structures cannot happen overnight. For a long time, in international relations culture was associated with soft power. Money was used to set the agendas top-down. Projects like European Spaces of Culture are indispensable in making this change possible. We just have to be persistent.
YM Taking inspiration from Ubuntu, “I am because we are”, we understand that the project is not possible without the involvement of each of the partners. To create this framework, in my own work, we host an induction where we co-create clear, shared codes of conduct to draft an agreement between all the partners. We aim to recognise that everybody is equal. Someone who has worked in the field for 30 years is valued as much as the funder who is bringing in 150,000 pounds. It also takes leadership to create a culture where everyone feels valued and then stepping back in order to allow the group to come forward. We all have our strengths and we all complement each other.
The ethic of codes of conduct for projects is really interesting …
YM We now have a fresh code of conduct for each new group. We have learnt that you have to put these in place right at the beginning and then have a moment to review it. It’s a manifesto of how we’re going to work together.
It’s essential to have the public and private sectors and civil society all working together. They all have different roles and functions. Making sense of everyone’s role, creating a framework for collaboration, this is EUNIC’s role.
We want to work at the interface of the public sector and the independent cultural scene. How can EUNIC manage the balancing act between these two different spheres?
KB I believe that keeping a fair balance of public and non-public institutions is very important. In many countries the political situation is quite volatile, the public sector is very fluid in terms of people and the moment people change everything else changes, there is no or little continuity. However, in non-public sectors there is more specific knowledge and experience which needs to be relied on. So, having this healthy mix is important to keep in mind.
YM It’s essential to have the public and private sectors and civil society all working together. They all have different roles and functions, which is why they were invented. In a situation like Ghana, for the Asa Baako festival we produce, we have a very light touch with the government. However, we need to engage with them for validation, while with the local chiefs we engage out of respect to receive permission. We work very well with the local police so we can have safety and security measures. The recycling project is done with the local community and there is no government involved in it at all. So, we are looking for private partnerships to take that forward.
It’s about being realistic about the function and capacity of every single partner. We try hard to make sure that when we engage local NGOs and community groups, we’re really clear about what their objectives are. We get them around the table and say: you’re all part of a puzzle; there’s a problem we want to solve; and we all have a part in it with different strengths. EUNIC’s role is important in setting that framework of collaboration and creating comfort in it, making sense of everyone’s role: it’s not that the local politicians are not interested, their role was only necessary for one week, and you as an NGO are important in this journey for three years. EUNIC’s role is very important especially when people don’t know about policy.
If you looked back at European Spaces of Culture in a couple of years, how would you know the project has been successful?
KB That’s a difficult question. How would you know?
To me one aspect would be that we continue to work in such a new way – equally engagement with all our members and partners. It will be a success if European Spaces of Culture becomes the normal framework for cultural relations in the future.
YM How would you know that it has been successful? For me, it is when people stop asking you to do the thing you want to change. Which is to say, when our initiatives become a consolidated reality, that is when you know they have been effective. However, visions are big, and not to be a pessimist, cultural changes do not happen in days, we have to think in the timeframe of a lifetime. You therefore have to make your markers for success measurable. An indicator of success would be having external partners cooperating and seeing collaborations between EUNIC members.
KB For me one very important thing is the models that have been supported and grown through this initiative, that they continue living and developing. The sustainability aspect – the fact that these collaborations and ideas are picked up in the local environments and people sustain themselves. This development would be an important indicator, that the projects are not one-offs, that something supported with European money does not disappear when the money is gone. I would also be very interested to see if the knowledge, the know-how and approaches developed through Spaces of Culture – how to do culture in a different way – comes back to Europe and we say, you know, there is something we did in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Colombia and it was completely amazing, we have to do it in Germany or Ukraine or the UK. If this knowledge travels back, then it really is a flow of ideas and experiences.