Ragni Stoltenberg

The magic of meetings – creating common ground across borders

© Felix Gaedtke

Ragni Stoltenberg is Advisor for the Section for Arts and Cultural Development at the Department of Culture in the City of Bergen, in Norway. She works with public cultural administration, such as management of The Cultural Rucksack in Bergen, the elaboration of municipal plans and processing of grants. Ragni co-ordinates several projects in the field of music and culture, and has been the project manager of several municipal events.

Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single hole.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it – only in a different way.

Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation; relation is mutual.

(Excerpt from I and Thou, Martin Buber, 1923)

The philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) claimed that both the self and a work of art could only arise in interaction with a human being, in the meeting between an I and a Thou. In this sense the self is created in the subjective and two-way interpretation through a meeting with another person, and art is created in the encounter.

For large parts of my professional career, I have facilitated meetings between people and meetings between art, culture and people; meetings that can be recognised as relationships to a greater or lesser extent. The meetings have been of a cultural nature, they have been social, they have been academically interesting, provocative and sometimes high-tempered. The reactions that come out of the meetings show me that there are people present in them. There are no machines sending 1s and 0s back and forth, but people with reference points and attitudes, people who are affected by the meetings.

According to Martin Buber, the meeting can be a form of spiritual contact between the I and the Thou. In his philosophical work I and Thou (1923), humans are formed in the meeting between people, or between people and the other. In this sense, the self is manifested through the close encounters between the I and the Thou. A Thou can only exist if the I is present.

The City of Bergen’s location makes it no natural hub, not a place where people meet when passing through, like the greater cities in central Europe can be. Bergen is located between seven mountains in one of the westernmost parts of Norway. There are long distances between the larger cities in this part of the country, and you must go through mountains and valleys and cross water to get wherever. Perhaps that is why people from Bergen are considered so loud; here no one else can hear them – or they have to raise their voices to be heard. Taking distances and transport into account, Bergen could have been a fairly closed city. But no less than other cities, Bergen is part of Europe. Europe and the world have, through centuries of various collaborations and trade, arrived at the city port to establish relations. Business relationships, co-operative relationships, partnership agreements, friendships, and even romantic relationships. Cultures and ways of expression have been exchanged. Today, the city bears a strong mark of international influence. Many different businesses, arts institutions, festivals, and educational and research institutions house people of different nationalities.

It is a municipality’s job to listen to the people who live in it. It should be a city’s goal that the inhabitants thrive, work and live in it. In the City of Bergen, we seek to be close to the residents, be accessible, and to learn from those who live in the city or are somehow attached to it through schools, work and leisure activities. It is the people in the city who give the municipality a foothold, who keep us busy and active. We work for the people, and the more we know about them, the better we can facilitate and collaborate. It is therefore very important to have good local meeting places. It is through meeting others that we come to be, also as a municipality.

Bergen is a city where art and culture are very visible. People in Bergen seize every opportunity to visit a festival, to seek out and meet at events and make full use of the different urban spaces. It is at these meeting points the magic occurs, this is where people and art are seen and created.

International co-operation and networks are very important for the City of Bergen. The European Festivals Association (EFA) has done a formidable job in forming networks and creating arenas where people can meet. The Arts Festivals Summit 2022 in Yerevan was such a place. Different people from different nationalities met and discussed important topics. After years of COVID, it was good to be able to meet people properly again, to come back to a physical life. And even though I came from a rainy place on the western coast of Norway to sunny Yerevan, I once again got the feeling that we are much alike, that the substance is basically the same, that we have a common basis of understanding and the same goals, even though the experiences and ways of life may be different.

These experiences, these meetings between the I and the Thou would not have happened without the mutual openness of the delegates present, who by putting themselves centre stage, offered themselves not only in a professional way, but also by bringing their personal experiences in the work they presented. This made this platform or this meeting place very valuable.

In addition, meeting places like these are also arenas for informally exchanging ideas and experiences. Perhaps one person’s brainstorming can lead to a realisable opportunity for someone else. One shares differences, concerns and common problems. In this way, you can gain a greater understanding of the framework others work within and base the expression of their views upon. Everyone has experiences, and the vast majority of people who participate in events like these are present, not only to learn and to understand, but also to be seen. That’s where the I meet the Thou and the self becomes visible. The self of the individual, the art festival, or the city.

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

Concert Minceta Fort © Dubrovnik Summer Festival