Eric Corijn

Arts and cities

What is an Urban Festival?

© Eric Corijn

Professor Dr. Eric Corijn is a cultural philosopher and social scientist, Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies at Free University Brussels, founder of Cosmopolis, the Centre for Urban Research, cofounder of the Brussels Studies Institute, Director of the Brussels Academy, member of the jury Stadsvernieuwingsprojecten Flanders and of the Regional Development Commission of Brussels Capital Region, codirector for Policy and Research of the Global Parliament of Mayors, board member of the Zinneke parade-Brussels and cochair of Brussels 2030, the bid to become Cultural Capital of Europe in 2030. He is the author of many books, among which: “A city is not a country”.

Is every festival in a city also an urban festival or should we look a little more closely at the stakes and criteria? That is the question we want to address briefly here. As we will see, it opens up a rather broad discussion about art and culture in urban contexts.

An urban world

Strangely enough, one of the most important features of the current context has been underexposed. In the early 20th century, only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities. Barely 220 million people. By 1970 it was already 37%, and at the beginning of this century it is more than half. By 2025, that will rise to three quarters or more than 5 billion people. Soon, in the most developed areas, almost 80% of the population will be urban.

Cities have also become much larger. In 1900, there were some 11 cities with 1 million inhabitants. By 1960, there were 166 and 15 cities already had more than 5 million inhabitants. In 2015 there were nearly 550 million-cities and already 14 with more than 20 million people. The forecast is that by 2030 there will be more that 750 cities of more than one million, of which some 150 will be in China!

This exponential development is especially evident in other continents. Europe has an old urban history, with some ancient cities and then a dense late medieval network. That leads to greater proximity and more organic growth. Here, there are some 70 metropolises of over one million inhabitants, 36 cities with one million, more than 50 of over 500,000 and some 500 of over 150,000 inhabitants. More than half of Europeans live in these small and medium-sized cities.

Anyway, post-industrial developments, activity and innovations are now urban. Cities are not islands, but rather nodes in a network of exchange, a “space of flows”. Cities have all been affected by globalisation, floating on openness, interdependence and interaction. There is a great mixture of population groups, of functions and activities. The hallmark of the city is precisely this interaction, this mixing, this “impurity”. While a country is more likely to look for an identity, a culture, a language, a nationality…

Rethinking Europe

These very profound developments mark Europe. Viewed from the air, Europe is an Asian peninsula full of urban networks. People do not live there evenly dispersed, but in very concentrated patterns. More than 60% of the population sits together in a narrow banana-shaped strip from southern England across the Low Countries, the Ruhr region, Bavaria to northern Italy. This “blue banana” covers less than one-fifth of the area but produces three-quarters of economic output. That central area sets the rhythm and sits in a tense relationship with both a Mediterranean fringe and an Eastern European periphery. An interesting cultural tension between North and South, West and East, with very different historical and cultural backgrounds. Europe is also connected to the rest of the world through these global cities: London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Milan, Madrid… In fact, one can trace this socio-cultural geography of Europe back to the late medieval developments in the Low Countries and Northern Italy, where together with the Baltic coasts, the new capitalist economy and modern society were designed.

In between, modern state-building intervened and that assumed a national model: delineated territories with ideally one homeland history, one culture, one religion, one language, in search of its own uniqueness. Nationalism was a European invention, subsequently implemented through imperialism and colonialism. When, after World War II, the European Union was expanded through various intermediate stages, it was obviously done through a confederation of states, an international treaty between nation states.

Over the decades, economic relations, trade treaties, legal and police arrangements, migration and other regulations were systematically incorporated into a unified market. More than half of our daily lives today are regulated from the European Union, sometimes with a certain democratic deficit. But imagination, art and culture, education, public media – in short, socialisation – remained stubbornly in the hands of the nation state. No European cultural policy, no European universities, no European education model. Although art and culture show a natural tendency to cross borders and transnational fertilisation, cultural policy and regulation remain primarily a national matter. And in more and more states those policies are also becoming increasingly nationalistic.

A tension is therefore emerging between urban networks as the underpinnings of European unification, on the one hand, and the national bias in the imagination of living together, on the other. A tension that is visible at several levels: the transnational operation of cities, cities increasingly being more than just a local authority under a national government, cities facing migration and super-diversity that no longer fit the national narrative, and so on.

A city is not a country

That field of tension calls for more transparency, for interpretation, for some theory and as well more open discussion and dialogue. The twenty-first century is the century of the city and can no longer make do with just a narrative from the nineteenth century! The city is super-diverse and struggles with an assimilation policy from a single national culture. The city is multicultural and part of a metropolitan network and thus connected to the world. And that puts pressure on some of our common sense. For instance, there is still a national language as a “lingua franca” but less and less as a fixed culture carrier, as a canon, as a repertoire. So, what are cultural frames of reference and in how many forms do they appear? Culture does not automatically refer to way of life. Religion, nationality or language are insufficient to know how people live, what determines their behavior or their world vision. In any community, super-diversity is now the rule. And, last but not least, a society is no longer one community. In a city, different communities live with and alongside each other. In my city, Brussels, two-thirds of the population is from elsewhere. And that results in remarkably great mixing: in Brussels, 60% of households are multilingual! At the same time, federal Belgium has provided that city with two separate, monolingual institutions (schools, cultural centres, media, decrees and subsidy schemes) to socialise that population. And that only encourages communitarianism. Because an urban society does not rely on one (national) community. It requires an intercultural polis, a newly constructed repertoire in which difference can be included.

This cultural challenge is only exacerbated by the major planetary challenges on the agenda in all cities. There is the totally out-of-control relationship with nature,global warming, the biodiversity catastrophe, the food crisis, the sanitary risks -or increased social inequality, the two tier society, exclusion, poverty that now affects between one-third and half of the urban population. And then, of course, there is increased population diversity everywhere, increasingly clashing with dominant national cultural policies.

Imagining a city and imagining a country trace separate paths. A national culture (and a national cultural policy) relies on a narrative of a shared past, a history that generates a tradition, an identity and its own repertory. That can be “represented” both in the model of representative democracy and in the arts. But that narrative is bounded by national borders, by its own territory. Beyond that lies the foreign country.

This conception of culture clashes with urban reality. Most city dwellers have different roots, are newcomers, meet from different backgrounds. Creating cohesion from the past and traditions only leads to even more divisions and identity discussions. The city searches for a shared future, for a destiny, for a project. And that narrative is not identitarian, but hybrid, “bricolaged”. It is in search of interdependence, of interculture, of a new language. This urbanity cannot be “represented” unambiguously. Hence, both democratic representation and cultural expression are inadequate. In a city, participation, coproduction, try-outs and living labs are necessary. And all this happens not in a closed area, but in networks: local, metropolitan, national and international.

Urban culture is of a different kind has a different challenge, a different programme, a different DNA. It challenges the entire arts and culture sector to deconstruct its own history, disciplines, methods, ploys. Continuity and discontinuity are both needed. But where and how? And what new formal language is appropriate?

The challenge is to articulate three categories. There is the multiple group formation, the “bonding” around one’s own tradition and culture, community construction. But there is also the much-needed society building, the “bridging” between groups and cultures, the intercultural and bonding with the Other. And that artistic and cultural field must be summed up in a new democracy, in a polis, a citizenship in a city of the world. A multiscalar democracy from the local ecosystem across region and country in a European and global context.

Arts and culture at the centre of a city project

This presents a challenging agenda. Business as usual is rarely an answer. The “sector” will have to seek repositioning. The “field” will be reallocated. The “narrative” needs to be renewed. The “city festival” will become a living lab, a testing ground, a place of transition.

On the one hand, this rearrangement offers a great opportunity to underline the societal importance of art and culture. The classic socialisation mechanisms – education, cultural centres, media – all face existential questions. Since creativity and innovation are needed, the arts come into the picture. But on the other hand, the arts and their brokers must be willing to take up the social issues, step out of the margins and take up the transition questions. From the margin (re)thinking the centre.

After the terrorist attacks and the pandemic, the Brussels regional government decided to present the city as a candidate for European Capital of Culture in 2032. Other Belgian cities are also preparing a candidacy. But for Brussels, the challenge is greater. Brussels is already the political “capital” of the European Union, with too much of a bureaucratic image. Brussels cannot enter an ECOC bid by programming a (even excellent) festival year. Here the challenge is to make a political city into a city of culture, and thus to also present a cultural narrative to the European Union. And, to build this from the specificity of Brussels’ urbanity: the most diverse city in Europe, an artistic breeding ground, but caught in the Belgian institutional web and very “separate” cultural policies. How could the “Bruxellitude” be told? And how could that fuel a “Europeanness”?

From that line of questioning, the candidacy is not only a matter of a good dossier but also of a willingness in the field to relate to existential questions and seek the creative solutions. A research agenda with some guiding principles. A city is not a country. Brussels is multi-community, but one society. How to decouple living together from community building? How to open up urban democracy to different population groups? What is the narrative that emerges from intercultural interaction? How does such an experimental narrative become a basis for a multicultural directory?

It is these artistic and cultural questions that turn urbanity into a societal project, beyond the nation state and its nationalism. That may not be a sufficient but is certainly a necessary condition if we are to continue the unification of Europe.

This text was the contribution of Eric Corijn to EFA’s 70th anniversary Arts Festivals Summit and the 70-Years-On Conversations.

Festival Life creates shared moments of audiences and artists, eye-to-eye

Dance Workshop Alesandra Seutin, Afropolitan Festival 2018 © Gilles Geek – Afropolitan Festival, BOZAR