Why Europe needs Tandem?

An answer by Prof. Franco Bianchini at the “International Perspectives on Participation and Engagement in the Arts” conference from 20-21 June 2014 in Utrecht In his closing remarks for the TANDEM panel discussion, Franco Bianchini (Professor of Cultural Policy and Planning, Leeds Metropolitan University, UK) placed Tandem in the current European political and socio-economic context. His analysis led Prof. Bianchini to conclude that the programme’s relevance lies in the support and development of an active community of cultural change makers across Europe.

‘I am not going to be very critical, about your objectives and project. After listening to the discussion today, I think what you are doing is really important. The objectives are very diverse. They range from promoting citizen participation in cultural life to issues of education and talent development as well as the much broader urban policy issue of developing solutions for the future of a city or even region.

It is a dangerous moment in Europe now, but at the same time a moment that is very full of possibilities. We can observe an increasing impatience and dissatisfaction with elites in Europe. People are voting for anti-system parties and movements. This is showing a wish for a radical break with elites of politicians but also academics, journalists and bankers.

This very interesting political context is framed by the current economic situation. The analysis by French economist Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is in a sense showing that capitalism in Western Europe is moving forward to the past. It is moving forward to the 19th century, forward to a very, very unequal distribution of wealth and towards the dismantling of ladders of social mobility. These have more or less always existed in one form or the other in several European countries since the late 1940s and ‘50s. Now they seem to be disappearing quite fast.

So in this really difficult economic political context, I consider the work of Tandem and other European participatory cultural practitioners in Europe as crucial, because they can respond to populist simplifications, which not surprisingly are an aspect of the mounting criticism of elites. These populist simplifications are dangerous, as they are often linked with xenophobic neo-nationalism. Populists need an enemy, and immigrants and/or marginalised ethnic minorities offer an easy target. Populist simplifiers tend to reject complexity, ambiguity, ambivalence, nuance. They tend to dislike artists and researchers who question populist certainties. They also dislike people who value hybridity and intercultural dialogue. One of the answers to such populist simplifications is doing the kind of work Tandem does. For both socially engaged academics, other researchers and artists it’s important to really understand local cultural maps, local cultural cartography, local desires and creativity. Such a bottom up, ‘cultural planning’ (or ‘planning culturally’?) approach is probably one of the most powerful answers to populist rhetoric.

As an attempt to respond to citizens’ growing disaffection with politics and other institutions today often there is rhetoric of participation, when in reality there is very little participation. This is visible, for instance, in some European Capital of Culture bid books. A very strong emphasis on participatory approaches is de rigueur, but in reality only some European Capitals of Culture have an effective participatory strategy. Thus there is also a need to expose the rhetoric of participation. It is becoming a bit similar to the rhetoric of ‘community’, ‘environmental sustainability’ or even of ‘creativity’, which are ubiquitous but not really corresponding to reality in many cases. In fact in some cases, this kind of rhetoric is applied to mask a decline in participation, or in environmental sustainability, or in sense of community, or in creativity.

This conference is going to discuss issues that Tandem is interested in. One of these issues is intercultural exchange. Precisely because we have this difficult politics of neo-nationalism in many countries, there is a tendency to narrow down, to impose restrictive frames on people, limiting the possibility of thinking about alternatives. This is certainly the case in England, and I say England deliberately because the debate, for example, in Scotland in the run up to the independence referendum of 18th September 2014 is quite wide ranging and much more imaginative. In England there is definitely a narrowing down of thinking about what is possible. This started with the rise of neo-liberalism with the Thatcher governments in the 1980s. Neo-liberal economic policies, and rising inequality, have since Thatcher combined with a nationalistic discourse. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has given his distinctive contribution to continuing this tradition, recently talking about ‘British values’ as one of the key things that have to inspire education in the UK. I am not really sure how you distinguish them from Dutch values, or from Luxemburgish values or Swedish values. That is something that I would like to ask David Cameron. By coupling the notion of values with a national idea, you immediately narrow down thinking, precisely at a time where we need much more free thinking and experiment. It is this kind of open minded thinking, founded on intercultural exchange, which we need to get out of the environmental and economic crisis.

The other benefit of inter-culturalism is that, I think, through your work you are highlighting ideas, concepts and ways of looking at the world, that are coming from people who often have no voice. So we are moving back to one of the founding principles of the socially engaged arts: the politics of representation. It is about giving a voice to people who don’t have a voice. And sometimes these people express meanings and values more comfortably in languages that are not the dominant ones in the countries in which they are resident. I think that is also something that we should develop: intercultural glossaries in different languages in the cities in which we work. This would be in order to capture the richness of ideas, of possible proposals for change that come from immigrants and the new citizens who are living in European cities today. Several multi-ethnic European cities have more than 100 different languages spoken within their borders. Let’s use these different languages, learn at least some words in these languages in the process and take the opportunity not just to impose our own language on other people.

And lastly, let’s just talk a bit about the conference. Among the many interesting topics to be covered, I would like to highlight research by Leila Jancovich, my colleague from Leeds Metropolitan University. Leila’s research is showing that direct participation in cultural activities is much less socially stratified than attendance. Projects and policies which take a genuinely participatory approach tend to achieve better representation of people with lower income and educational status than policies and projects focused merely on fostering attendance. So that is a starting point, an interesting fact which is often not talked about enough by the arts policy establishments of different countries.

Secondly, there is also some initial research showing, that participatory decision making in culture, such as experiments in participatory budgeting in Brazil, tends to enhance the political status of culture and therefore increase funding. That is another interesting message.

Thirdly, another conclusion from Leila’s research discusses the consequences of experiments in participatory decision making in the arts, which include the artistic policy as for example of CONTACT in Manchester and of the National Youth Theatre of Wales. Many advocates of the status quo in arts policy highlight a possible negative trade-off between participatory decision making in the arts and artistic innovation, excellence and experimentation. But Leila’s research shows that participatory decision making tends to create richer, more innovative and more challenging artistic programmes. These are some quite important conclusions. I would like to discuss them at the conference, because I think cultural policy itself has to change in order to respond to the growing criticism of ‘democratic elitism’* as a form of governance.’

*With thanks to Dr David Stevenson (Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh) for suggesting at the TANDEM meeting that I should use the concept of ‘democratic elitism’.