top of page


Let's Talk Future

What is the role of culture in building a Europe of the future? What is Europe and what are cultural relations vis-à- vis Europe and other parts of the world? The session looked at Europe (both as an idea and as a geopolitical term) as one of the world regions, in a global context and in consideration of its relationships with other world regions. Mercedes Giovinazzo (Interarts) opened the discussion with these questions.


Anupama Sekhar (Asia-Europe Foundation) was first to speak, and observed that Europe is looking to Asia, and that in Asia they notice this. The question is what Europe is looking at and what they should be looking at. More than ever there is a need to nuance Asia, which is otherwise often thought of in terms of the giants of India and China, without sufficient time being spent looking at the smaller countries. An important and interesting question to ask is how, in a system with very little funding for culture, is an entire continent organising itself to have a sustainable cultural ecosystem? There are many interesting stories there.


Now, Anupama observed, Asia is looking to Europe not for technical expertise, but in interest at the concept of the artist getting recognition as a professional. That status is not present in Asia. They are also looking for recognition for contemporary creativity and civil society action, as a safe space for unsafe ideas, which in Asia would be seen as antagonistic.


The Asia-Europe Foundation is a publically funded organisation connecting Asia and Europe. They see the need to keep increasing support for cultural innovation, for non-commercial exchanges, and to look beyond the obvious in terms of format. Another priority is the need for peer-to-peer contact, for which there are limited opportunities at conferences. Co-creation is not as easy as naming something a co-creation fund (because in this case, it is the one providing the money that decides).


Europe should invest more in the mobility of cultural operators outside Europe. Reciprocity has to be learned to bring the rest of the world into Europe. Nuance is needed from the European point of view in order to make the best possible exchanges. Cultural exchange and the way we manage it has the power to change the course of society. Asia is looking for an equal partner and the EYCH is an opportunity to demonstrate a nuanced understanding of Asia, and of minorities within European society.


Katherine Watson (European Cultural Foundation) thinks of culture in Europe as the spotlight on a figure skating arena, where the lights going on, and the operator is trying to catch the movements of the figure-skater. She is more and more anxious at increasing discussion about the uncertainty of the future. Is this just normal? Or is it moving faster and faster? Do we need all the answers?


She reflected that we have lost our ability to recognise patterns and are just waiting to be shown which direction to take. So many things are flashing around that we are distracted and do not know where to start. Issues and concerns of inequality, unease and uncertainty result in fragmentation and retrenchment, in loss of solidarity. We need to reinforce the understanding of the ‘we’ and ensure that it is the most inclusive ‘we’ that we can imagine. There is here an enormous potential, the result of the power of many actions all together, cultural activities and processes that step up and work towards transformational change. Organisations must engage people in cultural processes that talk about possibility, not impossibility.


The task at ECF is to find, foster and facilitate those initiatives and ideas, growing them together, through interdependence in Europe. That has to be our understanding of the world, as resilient, dynamic and diverse. The idea of peer-to-peer is what we need. It has to be the basis of what we do: in communities, across borders, across the world.


Katherine insisted on culture as a stimulus for action. It restores communities. We need to think beyond the cultural sector, not just in our own bubble, and work together towards change in terms of the environment, social justice, inequality, and transformation to a new and fair economy. It is good to know that ministers are talking about this, that culture and education are topics of conversation around the lunch table. Our job is to shine that spotlight, to connect, champion and amplify.


Furthermore, Katherine emphasised that we need to surpass our boundaries and break out of our legacy of being the centre of all else in the world, which is just not the case. Europe is small and finite, but we have the power and ability to take a leading position in the world and say that things need to change. We need a more interdependent world and the EU has a role in addressing global challenges, moving from ‘I’ to ‘we’, and the way to get there is through culture.


Paul Dujardin (Centre for Fine Arts, BOZAR) considered ideas around cultural workers and activists, trying to live together in Belgium and the way democracy works nowadays. We need to make compromises in order to live together in the European space.


The European space is more than Brussels, more than France and Germany and more than borders and security. Already during the Cold War the European space was created by the Council of Europe. We sometimes forget these multimateral organisations that came before us and we need to return storytelling to the debate.


What can the artist bring to the debate and how? For instance, when he was at the Goethe Institut looking at the realities of decolonisation (one of the most important memories from Paul’s childhood). Over the last decades he has seen many projects like this and it is always interesting to see what perspective they take.


After World War II, we were stuck between, on the one hand, America’s ideology of modernity and on the other hand, the Soviet Union. Today, there are numerous narratives, and it is difficult to know what to believe, when in this atmosphere of fear and unfairness. These are two important elements of the discussion that we need to have. The fear and unfairness felt by citizens must be discussed by intellectuals and scientists together.


Concerning education in the project of imagining Europe, Paul considers it highly important to communicate in images, where words are no longer communicating effectively, e.g. LUX prize, prizes in theatre, literature, cinema. These narratives are important to show how we are living together in Europe.


We need diplomacy and cooperation, but a lot has to be learned in the European bureaucracy. Paul recognised that the European space is not a project where everyone thinks in the same way. In the past, what came from America was public diplomacy, while what came from the Soviet Union was propaganda. Now, looking at digital investments from the side of Asia, China, America and Europe, we need not a change of technology but in content and creative thinking.


Exchange is very important, and that fascination that we have always had with Asia dates back a long time. This can be seen in the Western Balkans, in Bulgaria, where it is the meeting point of a long history of influences of Orthodox Europe, Russia, the Arab world, the Silk Road, Turkey and the Mediterranean.


It is important that in the coming European presidencies, where two countries will hold the presidency for the first time, that we look at the 100 year anniversary of countries in the Balkans, like Finland, who then experienced freedom, and to relate this to freedom in Africa, the reality of what Asia is today, and our democratic values.


He referred to what Federica Mogherini said at the Culture Forum two years ago in Brussels, that we are still able to tell stories that communicate our values outside of the European space but only if we respect them within our own space. These are for us cultural workers opportunities, for which we need to understand new types of dialogue. European countries, France, Germany, are still making bilateral deals and Europe still has a very vertical power structure. The significant thing we need to do is to translate this concept to educators and to artists and make them part of the debate. That is our responsibility in Brussels to inspire and empower, together with a lot of new stakeholders, and work particularly with the European Parliament, the most democratic body, where there is the most possibility for change and development of partnerships across the world.


Luca Bergamo (Vice Mayor of Rome) recounted how Europe has grown and changed from the late 15th century, when the European powers decided that they would not restrict themselves to Europe and would go out and seek more. Europe dominated the world.


In the 19-20th century, there was the notion that developed of ‘the West’, which included Europe and North America, where there was still a geopolitical dominance. That has not entirely changed in the 21st century. You have a shrunken Europe, a still sizeable US and now, Asia has been growing stronger, and as Anupama commented previously, it is not just a single mass. Also, there is Latin America that has freed itself from the chain of North American control. All along this line, Africa has been missing, even though it is where the story began.


It took four centuries to move from ‘Europe’ to ‘the West’, one century to move from ‘the West’ to the new situation, so, to the next world order, it is one century or probably less, where Europe becomes a very small thing in the world. That has to be solidly taken into account. It is true that we have resources, a marginal technological advantage, but how important is that and what does this mean for us? For me, that is the backdrop against which we are working.


Luca wanted marginally to challenge Katherine’s statement on the future that the speed of change is what makes the process of moving to the future unmanageable. However, what is clearly lacking is a voice, a vision, an ambition. Whenever in history it happens that voices and ambition are lacking, there are terrible results. If we do not provide a vision, someone else will (as Hitler provided hope for Germany and Mussolini provided hope for Italy, for example). We need to connect hope to real change, for a better future. We will end up living in a Europe where hope is going in the opposite direction to what we want unless we do something about it. That is a political and intellectual responsibility.


This community has that responsibility, but to this end it is silent. There is no narrative for Europe being offered, just silence. Silence is irresponsibility and has an impact. Silence disempowers those in politics who speak a different language, because the political language is dominated by a financial vision of time, which also the media debate about. It is short and narrow, and the media tries to set the political agenda. If you look at the challenges the classical mass media is undergoing, because of the surge of the new media, you see the impact of a community where nothing is controlled anymore and news reports now exactly what someone has said because they need to generate news at the speed of social media. There are very few among the mass media that seriously attempt to verify whether they information they have received is substantiated or not.


Politics is dominated by this mechanism. Whenever in politics you have topics that try to escape from this mechanism, unless the intellectuals take responsibility to speak this different language, then they will always be challenged. We need to say that culture is valuable for its transformational capacity to society, not its contribution to GDP. It is a tactic that struggles due to the lack of voices. Yet culture is not the problem, per se, nor politics, but a crisis of participation in cultural life and engagement. The challenges of our times require the cultural capacities of the people. Unless we as individuals and communities become more curious, more empathetic, we will not be able to drive forward a societal change, which is needed in terms of sustainability, not just environmentally but socially.


Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everybody the right to participate in culture and enjoy the arts. That is the point. It is not about the life of the artist, but about everyone. Politically, that is the point, and the rest is functional to that point. The issue is participation.


Luca loves Europe precisely because it is not a nation state, but a project to overcome the disastrous work of nationalism. Its cultural diplomacy cannot be that of the nation states, but must be based on new culture created through cooperation across borders, not repackaging the old culture of the Member States, which in any case is mostly colonialist. We need to change the European project such that its members are not nation states, but instead we have regions as members.


For decentralised diplomacy, we need to regain the role of cities in centralised cooperation. This is totally absent in European Union strategy. On the contrary, and this is not easy, cities must find a way to cooperate, despite the national government and the supranational institutions, and to be political actors on cultural cooperation. Doing the conference here is part of this thinking and the question is how you as a community of intellectuals and they as an institution, can help the cities, the local governments to regain this role is to Luca a big question mark. It is the cities that have the power to make the change. It is not the supranational organisations, it is not the nation states. However, everyday challenges can get in the way of these visions, and this is a universal truth.


Mercedes reinforced the point that Europe is tiny in the world but can take a lead role. The question is how this sector can engage in those efforts.


Katherine’s view was that a leading role is not necessarily synonymous with being a leader. It is rather about how collectively we can move beyond what we are individually. Diversity of Europe can come together and think about how to move forward in ways that are more important than any single element. In other parts of the world too, we need meeting places where people listen as well as talk. There are plenty of visionaries but politics is not listening to them. We need to move forward in a way that is more inclusive and empathetic and each play our small roles, which together can achieve something greater. We need a space where empathy grows.


Mercedes supported the idea of people partnerships as the essence of cooperation, with a shared objective that makes sense for all involved.


Anupama reaffirmed the difference between leading and being a leader. With cultural cooperation, it is a daily challenge, fraught with difficulty. With funding comes other agendas and there is a constant battle of agendas. Some dominate, so the question is who mediators are and what they bring. Multilateralism matters, and is needed now more than ever. Both in Asia and the EU, bilateral cooperation is happening, but not multilateral. Multilateralism by its nature holds more tensions, and it is very difficult to show the impact of these things through KPIs. It might seem that we are setting ourselves up to fail, but it is where the challenge is that has to be faced.


Mercedes agreed that multilateralism should be the modus operandi and also multilevel cooperation. This makes engagement much more complex, but more rewarding. She went on to ask what culture can bring to a new idea of how to play diplomacy.


Paul considered that the kind of action required related to the form of responsibility and the reality of the world of the artist. We need to bring in an element of cooperation. Political bodies are constrained by borders, so how can we connect more globally? Economic diplomacy is often the first reality in politics. Yet the Renaissance was only possible in the Low Countries because there was no war, education was good and learning to live together in cosmopolitan cities was already a reality.


We need a platform for different visions, but how can we make this a reality? Most African countries have no cultural ministry, so we need to work out how we can work with them. Leadership must cross borders. Here we are not very diverse, this is a very white gathering, and we need to take responsibility and deal with this, including through political programmes like Erasmus so that we can facilitate connecting people through the level of policy. Our duty is to empower people on all levels – in cities and in nations – to ensure that diversity. Migration is a reality, and we know that part of our duty is to take responsibility in the world of culture to go to political bodies and work to make it better. Many artists don’t migrate, so what is happening in far away places?


Mercedes asked how we encourage political responsibility and how we can become more vocal.


Luca remarked that there are those who make noise who have some presence in politics. Democracy, the way we have conceived of it, does not work well, so the challenge is to decide how to change it, how to make it work. Society needs to search for the Third Estate, as in French revolution, comprised of people with different names and accents. There is a push from some parts of society for them to go away, for them to be got rid of, and this is very dangerous. Cultural actors have to take responsibility to play politics, though not everyone has to. It is not on the basis of being an artist that they should become involved in politics, but because they can transform narrative into decision.


Simon Mundy agreed with Luca’s analysis that this should be based on the UNDHR, as acting within that gives us our mission. The problem is moving to what Paul referred to, moving from a state of fear to a state of being unafraid, from unfairness to fairness. This is the source of much political tension at the moment. We need a more fluid idea of Europe, in which no territories are too powerful, able to impose their will on others. Europe is essentially going through its own process of decolonisation.


Vasyl Cherepanyn spoke up to say that there is a problem achieving this on a city level, as the EU is still functioning as a nation state, which involves a problem of citizenship. If nation states are members of the EU, not citizens, then we need a new European constitution, creating European citizenship. The Roman Empire had Roman citizenship for Asians, Africans, everyone. Secondly, if you look throughout the world, what unites all people despite their different contexts is that culture is under attack today. There are even instances of censorship within the EU, and if we look to Syria, we see what has happened at Palmyra. We need to establish a real freedom of culture in Europe, with no censorship.


Mercedes agreed that it is a source of frustration for young people today to see how they become citizens of Europe.


A question was posed from the floor on the topic of a cultural shift away from a culture that is too sensitive to the economy, and not sensitive enough to human rights and inclusion. She asked what could be an ally for culture and politics that could replace economy in this enterprise.


Ivor Davies put forward a question to Anupama, commenting on the difficulty of working with people whose DNA is about giving answers and authority. He asked how it is possible to have a conversation with people who only give you answers and leave no space for questions. Concerning relationships within Europe and with Asia, he asked whether we are in the right place when we talk about structures that are about giving answers, creating projects and building things where we have the answers and others do not.


A further comment from the floor concerned the economy, culture, politics, and democracy. He stated that these are all keywords that we know and he believes that all these fields are interconnected. Within politics, economy and culture there are many people working in coming up with alternatives. We need to explore these alternatives and furthermore culture can play a critical role in coming up with these alternatives. How do you think that this can happen? The whole system needs to change rather than a specific definition with an individual area.


Iwona Preis, who works in Sweden with Intercult with international relations for cultural institutions, and this is getting tougher. She has noticed a diminishing interest in culture. Even the Ministry of Culture is having difficulties with this subject, so how do we maintain interest in for international cooperation in the cultural sector and how do we facilitate cross-border cooperation?


Irena Bauman asked who should make this change possible.


Mercedes asked for closing statements in consideration of the points raised from the floor.


Paul concluded that we all have to take responsibility. We did this with many cities, independent of political bodies, and artists have a lot of ideas. It is important to address issues not in a top-down manner, but bottom up. We are not at the end of the process, but we are dealing with a common political reality, and we need a common space as part of our global reality.


Luca explained that we are living in a time of massive change, so we cannot expect to understand exactly the position we are in. It is very difficult, he said, even when listening to himself, he tries to think whether it makes sense to keep performing this exercise, discussing the challenges, trying to deal with the complexity. The challenge is trying to keep together ideas in the short and long term. It is a big challenge that the things that need to be done take shape in the long term, while politics deals in the short term. The question that is always asked is what you have done in one year. Having communities that keep voicing questions and challenging the beyond the obvious, is very important. We must not be closed. We should listen.


Katherine wished to echo what Paul had mentioned previously that we have quite different perspectives, as funders and advocates and across the cultural sector etc. Multilateralism, coming together in social policy, she proposed, are the essential pieces for a shared interest and bringing about change. We must see the strength in civil society in a more focussed less centralised way.


Whatever change it is that you work for, align this with a collective interest. An understanding of the need for systemic change and the desire to make that happen is important. Also, bringing in the cultural lens, the system has an independent life and thinks it cannot be directed. What then is our role in that system, so that we can move things forward, based on understanding of human rights? We are constantly looking for own space and keeping it alive and leading it where it needs to go. We have a responsibility to listen, to translate and to provide a voice.


Anupama considered that it is perhaps the opportunity for joint leadership between Europe and Asia, and not to have one single leader, particularly in a world where Trump has steered the US away from leadership in the world order. Each region can give answers and expertise, and now we are living in a fundamental moment of change. We are so busy doing projects that we don’t think about how we can enact change. It is critical to re-programme the way we do cultural projects. We need to slow down and be able to justify what we are doing better, working with cultural operators across the world. There is very little space around the coffee table, so there is no proper space to express these ideas. Europe should show leadership and create these spaces. There should be a greater connection in the global south, between Africa, Asia and Latin America, where there are often low economic indicators but not low cultural indicators. This would allow us all to push towards fair cultural cooperation in the future.

bottom of page