Cultural action against populist nationalism in Europe - Banlieues d’Europe conference in Turin.

21/23rd November 2012,
Torino, Italy

Organiser: Banlieues d'Europe

Logo Banlieues d'EuropeThe venerable network Banlieues d’Europe held its 19th meeting in Turin to explore how cultural projects act against rising nationalism in Europe. Around 90 people from 11 countries, with strong representation from Italy and France, came together. Project examples – many to do with Roma inclusion, and many involving video-making - were on offer for exploration and discussion through a fair with project stands, parallel workshops and visits of projects in Turin. ‘Learn and connect’ was what the meeting encouraged participants to do; it was not about forging political alliances against populism, although the need for political change was urgently expressed by some such as Banlieues d’Europe's President, Jean Hurstel, and Franco Bianchini, lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, who framed the event with their reflections on the ideological climate of our times.
PIE Secretary General, Sabine Frank, moderated a panel on “Roma communities, a symbol for Europe”, with speakers Mate Gaspar from the Open Society Foundation in Hungary and Márton Illés from the Independent Theatre Company in Hungary.

Framing thoughts on the state of Europe by Jean Hurstel and Franco Bianchini

Jean Hurstel, founder and President of Banlieues d’Europe, mentioned the host of right-wing populist parties across Europe, which have gained public support and media attention in recent years. He topped the description with the outcry “With the Nazi atrocities still in our memories, how can it be that we have this flood of racism in Europe?” Jean went on to interpret the situation as Europe being in the grip of three phantoms: firstly, ‘the dangerous immigrant, Arab or Islamist’, secondly the idea of ‘invasion which endangers our culture and way of life’, and thirdly, the idea of ‘united, homogenous peoples’. Because such delusive ideas are problems of imagination, Jean held out the conviction that they can be tackled through cultural projects, which encourage alternative ways of imagining reality (“les meneurs des projets culturels sont les travailleurs de l’imaginaire”).

Franco Bianchini reflected on the concept of the ‘New Normal’, which goes back to a speech delivered in 2010 by the Chief Executive of PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Company), Mohamed El-Erian, in which he outlined that the 2007-2008 financial crisis had far-reaching and lasting consequences. Franco made connections between the enduring economic crisis, austerity politics, rising nationalism and ideological attacks on the cultural sector in Europe. He described how a hollowing of the state since the 1980s and an increasing reliance on market forces had favoured a climate where politicians search for simple answers, strong leaders are yearned for, patience with inclusive decision-making is low and hostility to the EU with its complexity and ‘remoteness from the people’ high. This was also coupled, according to Franco, with a trend of suspicion towards intellectuals, artists and public service broadcasters who question populist simplifications. In this context, a new interest in ‘civil society’ needed to be treated with caution since it was a force (e.g. volunteers) used to compensate for the loss of public expenditure. The ‘New Normal’ for culture, according to Franco, is characterised by a withdrawal from participatory art forms, a shift towards tangible heritage, and an overall reduced role of culture in public policy. It has seen the establishment of national cultural canons (the Netherlands, Denmark) and fresh interest in ‘culture for glory and regional or national prestige’. Franco advocated a set of responses to the ‘New Normal’: Projects inspired by interculturalism, pluralism and the reconfiguration of institutions; festivals revitalising the public sphere, guerrilla demonstration projects, and the networking of cultural resources. He held out a vision of Europe as “the most open region of the world” and dared to dream that internationally open educational curricula could help achieve it.

Three “Perspectives from European actors”: academic, artist, elected local government official

Aleksandar Brkic, University of Belgrade, explored the question “Where is the power of culture?” He explained that “nationalism enters through the loophole of identity questions” and that identities were often not self-adopted, but assigned to individuals. He referenced this statement in Erzen Shkololli’s self-photo triptych - as a young boy in Albanian folk costume after his circumcision, as an older boy in his Tito pioneer uniform, and as a young adult before a blue background with a halo of EU stars around his head.
Aleksandar deplored that there was not enough civic (re-)action to xenophobia.
He contrasted nationalism with Intercultural Dialogue in the sense that the former divides and the latter reconnects the divided. Can the arts & culture create Intercultural Dialogue in this sense, he asked? His answer was ambiguous, but he seemed to say that it depended on the kind of art.
With reference to “Putin Art” (e.g. Russian President Vladimir Putin singing and playing the piano for charity), he pointed out that the arts can be appropriated by shallow interests. On the other hand, art could speak the truth which people in power conceal (see Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Peace Prize lecture “Art, Truth & Politics”). And finally, Aleksandar contended, “art is everything, everything is art” – what counts is whether art occupies not just the public space but the political space. “Artivism” in this sense was desirable: art which opposes ideologies with ‘micro-narratives’, encourages self-reflection, networking and the drive to influence (cultural) policy-making from the bottom up.
Aleksandar’s presentation provoked a controversial, if short, debate. A conference participant from Scotland expressed the opinion that “the only way to occupy political space is to devolve power to the smallest possible unit.” A participant from Luxembourg disagreed with the suggestions that large swathes of people are de-politicised. Rather, he said, there was the unsolved challenge of federating active citizens in order to increase the impact of their actions.

Next spoke an “artivist” himself, the rapper Axiom, of Moroccan origins from the North of France. He explained that rap to him was a means to make governments think – which he most directly applied to his song “Ma lettre au Président” of 2006 (“My letter to the President” – Nicolas Sarkozy), in which he accuses France of thirty years of racism, ignorance and repression without prevention (“J'accuse trente ans de racisme et d'ignorance, la répression sans prévention en France”). He seemed to speak of his own evolution as a rapper when he stated that “the idea of a-political people is a myth … they are political even if they don’t talk of the world of politics … ‘Power’ is a word that creates fear, but perhaps it can be positive … The local provides the motivation to engage in regional, national, international politics.” Axiom blended such samples of his philosophy with information about some of his involvements in community development and campaign initiatives: He is the founder of Norside, an organisation fighting against inequalities and discriminations in urban zones with multicultural populations. He set up the campaign against so-called ‘routine police controls’ of young men of visible foreign origins (Stop le Contrôle au Faciès). A stay in the United States inspired him to write the book “J’ai un rêve” (I have a dream) in which he likens the struggle for civil rights of immigrants in France to that of Afro-Americans in the United States. He also launched the project YUMP (Young Urban Movement), which offers comprehensive training and accompaniment to would-be-entrepreneurs from difficult urban neighbourhoods.
Axiom also touched on the great presence of the French extreme right on the Internet, and the - surprising, one might say - alliances which are being forged between the extreme right and radical Islamist groups.

Ilda Curti, Deputy Mayor of Turin, explained the special characteristics and challenges of Turin: As a “one company town” (car-maker Fiat), it had originally grown in population through internal Italian migration. Only from the 1980s did immigration from outside set in. Today around 13% of the city’s inhabitants are of non-Italian origin and also foreign citizens even if born locally– due to the prevailing principle that Italian citizenship depends on being born to Italian parents. She explained that conflicts arise in the culturally mixed neighbourhoods of Turin in the first instance between people of different practical interests (resident versus shop-owners, for example) over the use of public space. The city government therefore saw it as a key task to make means for the negotiation of such conflicts available and to create opportunities and spaces for encounter.

Panel “Roma communities, a symbol for Europe”

Sabine Frank introduced the panel with the quotation “The true measure of a democracy is the way the majority treats its minorities” (attributed to 1930s US Supreme Court judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes). If we considered that in the first half of 2012 alone, there have been at least twenty violent actions against Roma across four countries (Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic), involving ten deaths, then we must conclude that Roma people are a symbol for democracies in shambles. She deplored that the situation of Roma people would be discussed without any Roma people present. While discrimination against Roma and their widespread poverty was an “old problem in Europe”, she explained it had only become a “European problem” since the accession to the EU in 2007 of countries with large Roma populations, which set in motion considerable Roma migration within the EU. The EU has thus adopted a Framework Strategy for Roma inclusion in 2011, which is the basis for national strategies on Roma inclusion. The pillars of this strategy are education, housing, employment and health. Given that the arts do not figure in this strategy, she wondered “Are the arts just not in the mainstream of policy-making? Or are we truly dealing with a domain, which is still one of experimentation and unproven results?”
Márton Illés from the Independent Theater Company in Hungary revisited the stereotypes of Roma people with the participation of the audience. He then presented some of the appalling socio-economic statistics of Roma people in Hungary before going on to explain how his organisation helps address the situation: Independent Theatre Company develops plays of professional standard which involve complex development work of young, disadvantaged Roma. Plays and projects such as ‘Feather Picking’ and ‘Dreams of Junk’ are developed out of the personal stories of the Roma actors and brought to performance, discussed with audiences and sent on tour to order. The Company’s work to date counts “600 involved young people, 25000 people reached, 200 productions”. Márton emphasised that this work helped break the limiting association of Roma people with folk art such as violin playing. He also pointed out that Independent Theater Company takes no public grants in order to avoid any reproach of ‘sponging’. Rather than an NGO, it considers itself to be a social enterprise and to be commercially orientated. Some in the audience, however, questioned Márton’s contention that “Theatre can function as a for-profit organisation”, given that his company has received grants from private foundations.
Mate Gaspar, spoke as a representative of the foundation from which the theatre company received money - the Open Society Institute of Hungary. He agreed with Márton’s suggestion that the association of ethnic Roma art with being tradition and ‘authenticity’ – but also insufficient  ‘quality’ for the cultural establishment -  needed to be broken. He explained, how even the integration of Roma music traditions into classical music, by composers such as Liszt and Brahms, had reinforced the stereotypes about Roma art. He highlighted how singular the work of organisations such as Independent Theater Company still is – “Feather Picking” had been the first theatre piece about Roma issues in Hungary for the past 20 years. It had, however, inspired six other performances dealing with similar topics. Open Society Institute believed that it would be useful to create platforms of such practitioners. While it was important to avoid a confusion of social and cultural phenomena in the situation of Roma people, cultural means to change their situation were an important tool for creating interactions with non-Roma people without which the goals of raising Roma out of poverty would not be met. The record of the ‘Roma Decade’ (2005-2015) was disappointing so far.
Mate also briefly spoke about the Roma Pavillion at the Vennice Biennale, which was last sponsored by OSI in 2011. At this globally significant visual arts fair, art traditionally represents nation states. A pavillion dedicated to art from an evolving global network of Roma artists undermines this logic and indirectly draws attention to the discrimination of Roma in Europe.
The audience responded to the two speakers primarily as Hungarians and questioned them on the current political climate in Hungary.

Workshop “Culture and the fight against nationalism”

In one of three workshops, three further arts practices were presented:

Romanian choreographer Mihai Mihalcea, ventured into film-making when he heard about the expulsion of a Roma community from the city centre of Cluj-Napoca to make space for a Christian-Orthodox church and university campus. The Roma were expelled from their houses through manoeuvres of administrative stealth. They were re-housed in the slum of Pata Rât near a rubbish disposal site outside the city with poor transport connections.
Mihalcea filmed the Roma before and after their move in 2010 and 2011 and pulled this footage into a documentary together with interviews of city officials and representatives of the building project. The 56 minute-documentary refrains from interpretative commentary and seems to expect an obvious effect of moral outrage in the viewer. Besides demonstrating the perfidious use of seemingly legal administrative procedures, the film, however, raised in particular the question why the Roma people affected were so unable to oppose their fate and why there were no signs of their interest in a fight for political representation. Did we see an example of multiple discriminations over generations resulting in victimhood? The documentary served an NGO to take the case to court. It would have been interesting to hear, what has become of that.

Stefano Collizzolli presented ZaLab Tv, an organisation based in Italy which offers participatory video- and documentary-making workshops across four Mediterranean countries in order to tell the stories of marginalised people and to support participatory civic campaigns. Since work began in 2006, the films created with the support of ZaLab TV count over 1000 screenings in Europe and over 115 thousand Internet views. Recent documentaries tell the stories of African migrants who labour on Italian tomatoe farms (Black Boss White Boss) and of migrants intercepted at sea and returned (Closed Sea).

Tomáš Rafa, video-maker from Slovakia, presented the project and film "Walls of Sport” (2012). With the help of artists and volunteers from the Roma settlement in Sečovce, eastern Slovakia, a 220m long wall - erected to segregate a primary school for Roma children - was painted with sports themes. The project was supported by the Municipality of Sečovce as well as the Slovakian Ministry of Culture. The message seemed to be that creativity is a source of dignity and that the significance of objects can be changed through symbolic actions. The film raised many questions for which there was no time. To see Roma as subjects of their lives, however, provided a welcome contrast to their portrayal in Mihalcea’s film. The project is intended to continue in other cities and towns of Slovakia.

The meeting closed with visits to the community cultural centres in Turin Cascina Roccafranca, and Casa del quartiere San Salvario, as well as to Teatro Stalker, which is committed to “artistic experimentation within socially sensitive or challenging situations” and practices performance art and participatory theatre.

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