Ecogeographic Cultural Production? Appropriate Networking in Pixelache Helsinki & Network

ANDREW GRYF PATERSON

ABSTRACT: This article introduces the issues of aligning ecology and sustainability in the cultural production of Pixelache Helsinki’s Festival and network. It focuses upon what might be an ‘appropriate’ form of cultural networking, and argues for an ecogeographic approach in the future. The ecogeographic case example given is that of the Eastern Baltic Sea.

 

Adaptation by Andrew Gryf Paterson of graphic illustration in Westing, A. H. (1989)

Adaptation by Andrew Gryf Paterson of graphic illustration in Westing, A. H. (1989)

Introduction

Short distances between cities surrounding the Baltic sea means that locals have been busy with trade and cultural exchange for centuries. At different times the cultural, linguistic, economic and political formations of their surrounding nation-states have both eased and made more difficult that process. There are several regional and transnational high-level cooperative frameworks which focus on the Baltic Sea Region, such as the European Commission’s HELCOM and The Union of Baltic Cities.1 Furthermore in recent years Oleg Koefoed from Cultura21 Nordic was commissioned by Nordic Council of Ministers to undertake research on the relationship between cultural production and sustainability in the region (Aidt, 2013; Koefoed, 2013).2

In this short essay I focus on one cultural association from Helsinki, Finland—Pixelache Helsinki—with the example of its year-round educational programme which I coordinated and facilitated from the beginning of 2011 until 2014 – three intensive years of related cultural exchange around the Eastern Baltic Sea. In that position I argued for a renewed effort for mobility and exchange around the eastern side of the Baltic Sea region, re-invigorating the concept of the “Gulf of Finland Community,” and introducing the concept of an ‘ecogeographic’ approach to cultural production.

I write from the perspective of an artist-organiser in the cultural field, who has adopted different approaches from network culture and applied them to temporary collaborative productions in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus during my years based in the Baltic Sea region. I am also interested in writing narratives about these experiences, and connect them to practice-led cultural research, as well as to cooperative-minded research and pedagogy. At the beginning of 2011, I was employed part-time by the Finnish non-profit cultural association known as Pixelache to facilitate and coordinate an informal outreach and pedagogical programme called ‘Pixelversity’ as part of Pixelache Helsinki activities. I have written elsewhere on the same topic in a longer and more detailed article (Paterson, 2012), on which this edited version is based. As my proposal emerges from this work, I will first elaborate briefly on the underlying motivations of the Pixelversity programme and give an overview of my proposed orientation towards the Gulf of Finland as the basis for appropriate networking for cultural production, hinting at future aspirations and connections.

Paterson presenting 'Pixelversity' at Plektrum Festival, Tallinn, Autumn 2011. Photo: Antti Ahonen

Paterson presenting ‘Pixelversity’ at Plektrum Festival, Tallinn, Autumn 2011. Photo: Antti Ahonen

“Appropriate networking” for cultural production borrows a concept from permacultural development and appropriate technology applications, with creative applied design and technology for sustainability issues, such as renewable energy, clean water filtration, bio-remediation, or compost systems. The global Permaculture movement started by David Holmgren (b. 1955) and the recently deceased Bill Mollison (1928–2016) in the late 1970s in Australia is an inspiration as it is imperative to work with, rather than against nature; “of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” (Mollison, 1991). Its online equivalent may be the Appropedia.org network, initiated by Lonny Grafman, that brings a similar spirit to networked knowledge-sharing practices around the world. Grafman is inspired by the economist E. F. Schumacher, who over 40 years ago developed the concept of intermediate or appropriate technology, or “technology with a human face” (Schumacher, 1999). In general, according to Grafman, the consensus is that such technologies are those which can be maintained, used, repaired, operated, retrofitted by the actual stakeholders, “a technology that’s not just designed for but [..] designed with the stakeholders” (Grafman, 2016).

Context of Pixelache Helsinki

Pixelache Helsinki is a trans-disciplinary platform for developing and presenting experimental art, design, research and activist projects since 2002. However, it is also an organised network of people – currently approximately 30 association members, 1 full-time coordinator and 1 part-time staff member year-round, plus a handful of fee-based staff during the festival period or funded projects. About one third of members are regularly active in Helsinki; approximately one third are active but based remotely or often travelling outside Finland; and about one third are less active members; as well as a network of regular friends or unaffiliated associates in the Nordic-Baltic region or further afield. Many participants in this network use Pixelache Helsinki as the main way to present their recent professional practice, research or approach to art, design or technology; for others it is a fun, hobby-oriented event to test or experiment with prototypes; while for some lucky handful it is a mix of both.

Recycling Olympic Games award ceremony as the last event of Pixelache Festival 2016. Photo: Antti Ahonen

Recycling Olympic Games award ceremony as the last event of Pixelache Festival 2016. Photo: Antti Ahonen

Although it is true that as members we have become good friends, collaborators and peers in the development of Pixelache Helsinki, academically one could interpret it as a cluster of several communities of practice, who share concern and passion for what they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (Wenger, 1998). Included in this regular interaction are processes used with each other, with other organisations and institutions, as well as with other publics and communities in the format of a cultural festival or via other projects/processes. Early in Pixelache Helsinki’s development, a social science paper by Katri Halonen identified the strong co-relations between open-source ideology and the thematic and organisational structure of the festival (Halonen, 2007). However, the interests within this organised network are broad and not always easy for outsiders to understand.

Pixelache Helsinki is and has been part of a regional and international network of similar practitioners, organisers and producers, with qualities that Ned Rossiter claims characterizes networks: “fluid, ephemeral, transitory, innovative, flowing, non-linear, decentralized, value-adding, creative, flexible, open, collaborative, risk-taking, reflexive, informal, individualized, intense, transformative and so on” (Rossiter, 2006: 46). Rossiter refers to organised networks as “loose affiliations where participants have the freedom to come and go” (ibid, 2016: 22). Most often cultural networking happens via sharing information about events and ideas online, as well as with travel to attend gatherings or festivals. I argue that this should ideally be done in accordance with the synergetic relations of “natureculture” with protracted and thoughtful observation and (net)working.3

In coordinating and facilitating the Pixelversity programme between 2011-2014, discussing regularly with key participants, I considered relationships between different activities, imagining how they may build up cumulative knowledge and skills towards future Pixelache Helsinki activities. For example, in the first years there was an emerging interest from Piknik Frequency association members related to energy use, knowledge sharing, social engagement, and towards ‘transition/resilience’ themed activities and events. Considering the Baltic Sea regional scene, these interests have also found inspiration, company and informal collaboration with partners in Estonia and Latvia.4 The holistic vision of Green Economics, as presented by Molly Scott-Cato (2009), was also a strong influence at the time, leading to further research.

The topic of sustainability I argue is firstly not just relevant as a subject in our fields of practice and theory, but also relates to personal economical sustainability in a period of financial uncertainty, and specifically within cultural funding structures. Secondly, it is important in relation to our practice in our particular locality, in this case our region of the Gulf of Finland, the Baltic Sea region, and North East Europe. What are appropriate ways to work within organised networks, as part of the increased interest within our scenes for topics of transition/resilience, renewable art, technologies and sustainability?

Considering the ecogeographic region model

In early November 2011, I presented Pixelversity 2011 activities at the RIXC Centre for New Media Culture Art+Communications Festival Conference in Riga, and with this review, I also introduced the concept of an ‘ecogeographic’ approach to cultural organising and production, which was later published by the same organisation (Paterson, 2012).5

This perspective was originally inspired by conversations from 2007 onwards with marine biologist, artist and activist Richard Thompson Coon, resident of Suomenlinna until 2013, in Helsinki, where we first met. Coon founded and chaired the environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Gulf of Finland Environment Society SULA, which was active in the 1990s and early 2000s in the Eastern Baltic Sea. Through a multi-faceted, trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary environmental agenda and activism, his colleagues regularly gathered people together in educational events. For example, in 1996, natural scientists, musicians, artists and school children from Finland, Russia and Estonia gathered on Suomenlinna, a historical island fortress in Finland, to address the environmental situation of the Gulf of Finland. Many years later, he still advocated for continued grassroots, trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary initiatives related to the Baltic Sea region, and the Gulf of Finland in particular. Key from his point of view is the need to continue invigorating the idea of a “Gulf of Finland Community”. This community, according to Coon, should be understood as including not just humans, but also animals and plants; the whole ecosystem. The idea of a community which spreads over a geographical territory, based on ecological principles, may be called an “Ecogeographic community.”6

As political theorist and peace researcher Arthur Westing defines it, an “ecogeographic region” denotes a “geographical area that is unified in an ecological sense, gaining its integrity from this cohesion”; by extension, an ‘ecogeographic region’ is “an ecological system, or ecosystem.. a unit made up of living and ‘non-living’ components of the environment that interact to form a life-support system”. For example this may be “seas with their associated drainage basins (watersheds, catchment areas), major rivers with their associated drainage basins, major mountain ranges, major islands or peninsulas, insular aggregations, deserts, tundras, and permanently ice-covered areas” (Westing, 1989: 2). Hence, an ecogeographic approach would mean, in the case of the Gulf of Finland, not just the ecosystem population around the coast, but also that extending all the way to the edge of its water drainage basin. Westing opens his thesis “Comprehensive security for the Baltic: An environmental approach” with the question: “[T]o what extent does regional cooperation on environmental protection and nature-resource utilization serve as a confidence-building measure for the purpose of fostering comprehensive international security?” (ibid: 1). In other words, how does it help develop further shared common value and interest among stakeholders?

paterson3

Image of Participants at Camp Pixelache 2013 on Naissaar island, Estonia. Photo: Antti Ahonen

Returning to the cultural organisational field, as an artist-organiser, I believe in the necessity to develop trans-disciplinary capacities to engage on/in Commons issues; that cultural workers and producers can contribute to environmental protection and sustainable nature-resource utilization/management, and that active cultural organisations should lead the way by example, especially those with network-building and facilitation experience.

This approach raises a set of questions and thoughts that are relevant to consider: What will be the effect on cultural organisational work if we do our networking mostly within our ecogeographic subregion of the Baltic Sea, that is, the Gulf of Finland, including portions of Finland, North-West Russia, and Estonia? For example, this could include cultural exchange and co-production between the 3 ‘capital’ cities of Helsinki, Tallinn and St Petersburg, as well as with population centres and regions as broadly circumferential as Lahti, Jyväskylä, Kuopio in Finland; Petrozavodsk, Veliky Novogorod, Pskov, Russia; as well as Narva and Tartu in Estonia. What have been the challenges in the environmental NGO scene across the region, and how can we learn from their experiences? Where do we—in the trans-disciplinary media arts and cultural scene—find the resources and finances to support networking? Should the funding instruments support this from the top-down? Can we or will we have to raise grassroots support from the bottom-up? If so, who would be good partners and collaborators?

In answer to the above questions, I argue that it is necessary to include—beyond experimental art, design and technology, individuals and various organisations—cross-sectoral collaborations with the environmental NGO scene, including institutional scientific research, cultural associations and activist groups, schools and educational/participatory science groups. An example from the latter sector from outside the cultural scene is ДРУЗЬЯ БАЛТИКИ (Friends of the Baltic), who have organised the Baltic Sea Ambassadors project that compiled and presented ecological knowledge about the Baltic Sea and related sustainable practices, in schools around the region (Senova, 2011).

Concluding remarks

Reflecting upon our friendships, partnerships and collaborations that have developed over the years of Pixelache Helsinki, as well as upon attempts to collaborate beyond the art and cultural field(s), I argue that from an ecogeographic perspective we should be engaging with our human and non-human peers with whom we share the most fundamental Commons. In other words, develop appropriate networks among those who rely upon and live with the same constraints and affordances. Acknowledging the work of Gulf of Finland environmental networks and cooperation, what is absolutely shared and shared in common, despite the variable cultures, languages and political-state differences, is the Eastern Baltic sea, its extended hydrosphere and water-drainage basin on surrounding land areas, and other related environmental, atmospheric systems; essentially the watershed of the Gulf of Finland. In relation to this network, social and economic sustainability of practice can also be considered. The increasingly urgent and fundamental challenge in future regional cultural productions, collaborations and conflicts will be to take these commonalities into account as the basis for cooperation, as the basis for strengthening the appropriate networking vision of ecogeographic cultural community.

 

Acknowledgements

Much gratitude goes to my peers at Pixelache Helsinki in helping to test the practice of appropriate networking with me between 2011-2014, and especially to Richard Thompson Coon for challenging me with his pioneering work in the late and post-Soviet socio-political environment to develop the ‘Gulf of Finland Community’ concept, which was still an urgent vision that he could share a decade or so later in the early 2010s. In addition to acknowledging the influence of Molly Scott Cato’s vision of Green Economics, I add the shared work developing pedagogy titled ‘Green Economics and Management’ undertaken by Olga Mashkina and myself at Aalto University School of Economics Mikkeli Campus, from January 24 to February 11 2011, which contributed to shaping the combination of perspectives presented here.

 

ENDNOTES

1 See: European Commission (1992-). The Helsinki Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area. Webpage. Accessible from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/marine/international-cooperation/regional-sea-conventions/helcom/. Also see: The Union of Baltic Cities (n.a.). Webpage. Accessible from http://www.ubc.net
2 Disclaimer: This author was also a contributor to the related research as an interviewee, and was a presenter at the Nordic Council’s seminar in Copenhagen in which Cultura21 Nordic presented the research commission report on April 29, 2013. Further information is accessible from http://www.norden.org/en/news-and-events/news/culture-will-play-key-role-in-development-of-the-baltic-sea-region
3 ‘Natureculture’ is an anthropological term which contests that there is a dichotomous relation between Nature and Culture, recognising continual living and biotic relationships between both, and conceptually counters the alienation of Man and Nature. Further reading on this alienation can be found in El-Kamel Bakari (2004).
4 In particular the ‘MIM goes sustainable’ project in Tallinn between 2009-2011 (accessible from http://mimproject.org) and RIXC Centre for New Media Culture’s ‘Renewable Network‘ project also from 2009 ongoing, accessible from http://renewable.rixc.lv
5 RIXC Centre for New Media Culture. (2011). ‘Techno-ecologies’ Conference. Art+Communications Festival. 4-5.11.2011. Riga. Accessible from http://rixc.lv/11/en/conference.info.html
6 Note there are many similarities in this concept to what Peter Berg in collaboration with Raymond Dasmann in the early 1970s described as “Bioregionalism” (Berg, 2001).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aidt, M. (2013). Cultura21: How can culture lead transformations. Blogpost. Culturefutures.org, June 16. Accessible from http://culturefutures.org/2013/06/16/cultura21-how-can-culture-lead-transformations.
Berg, P. (2001). The Post-Environmentalist Directions of Bioregionalism [Lecture transcription]. Planet Drum. Webpage. University of Montana, Missoula. April 10. Accessible from http://www.planetdrum.org/Post-Enviro.htm.
El-Kamel Bakari, M. (2014). Sustainability and Contemporary Man-Nature Divide: Aspects of Conflict, Alienation, and Beyond. Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development. Vol. 13, Iss. 1, Pp. 195-216.
Grafman, L. (2016). Interview with Lonny Grafman. In Erik Moeller (ed.). Passionate voices. Weblog. February 19. Accessible from http://www.passionatevoices.org.
Koefoed, O. (2013). Culture and Sustainable Development in the Baltic Sea Region: 8 findings, a number of opportunities, and a way forward… Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers. Accessible from http://norden.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A701355&dswid=-8076.
Halonen, K. (2007). Open Source and New Media Artists. Human Technology: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Humans in ICT Environments . Vol. 3, Iss. 1. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä. Accessible from http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:jyu-200772.
Mollison, B. (1991). Introduction to permaculture. Tasmania, Australia: Tagari.
Paterson, A. G. (2012). Pixelversity 2011-2012: Towards an eco-geographic perspective, In Rasa Smite, Armin Medosch, Kerstin Mey, Raitis Smits (eds.), Acoustic Space #11: Techno-ecologies, Peer-reviewed Journal for Transdisciplinary Research on Art, Science, Technology and Society, Riga-Liepaja: RIXC-MPLab.
Rossiter, N. (2006). Organised Networks: media theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions. Institute of Network Cultures. Amsterdam: Nai Publishers.
Schumacher, E. F. (1999). Small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered: 25 years later … with commentaries (originally published 1973). Vancouver, BC: Hartley & Marks Publishers.
Scott-Cato, M. (2009). Green Economics: An introduction to theory, policy and practice. Oxon UK: Earthscan, Routledge.
Senova, O. (2011). International environmental camp of the Baltic Sea Ambassadors. ДРУЗЬЯ БАЛТИКИ (Friends of the Baltic). Webpage. St. Petersburg. Accessible from http://www.baltfriends.ru/eng_events2811.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Westing, A. H. (1989). Comprehensive security for the Baltic: An environmental approach. Oslo: UNEP.

 

In Defense of the Impending Death of a Collaborative Platform

MICHELLE LACOMBE

ABSTRACT: I have an instinct to hold on to new things. To want to make them last at times way longer than they should. In an act of ultimate possession, I have been known to destroy, or let erode, the very thing I am holding on to so that by the time I can no longer hold on, the thing is no longer what I was gripping. Somewhere in my life I was taught that there was a heroism in this irrational demonstration of commitment. And, while I do think there is value in the sacrifice inherent to emotional labour, locating that worth in neoliberal values of endless persistence is useless and damaging. Instead, I remind myself that letting go, abandoning and quitting can be an equal act of care and commitment.

 

VIVA! Suppers, Bazil Alzeri, 2013. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

VIVA! Suppers, Bazil Alzeri, 2013. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

When It Started

Initiated by Patrick Lacasse and Alexis Bellavance, VIVA! Art Action was established in 2006 by six artist-run centres from Greater Montreal as a collaborative platform through which to foster and support action art in its most singular, difficult and surprising forms. This includes – but is not limited to – performance, public intervention, relational projects, body art, happenings and furtive action. Although initially conceived of as a punctual event, after the success of the first edition – which vividly demonstrated both an interest and a need for such a platform in Montreal –the founders agreed to continue the initiative in the form of an international biennial festival.

Over the years, VIVA!’s structure has evolved organically and slowly between the founding members, non-profit contemporary art centres who remained collectively responsible for all aspects of the event and organization until 2012, when I was hired as a part-time coordinator. This included grant writing and reporting, developing the artistic programming, hiring festival coordination staff and overseeing general organizational governance. Basically, everything. While this model met VIVA!’s primary needs, as time passed it became daunting to the partners, who were already responsible for their respective calendars of artistic activities. For a community operating with limited time, money and energy, a punctual commitment of this scale was feasible but its repetition, and consequent development, was increasingly challenging to oversee.

The motivation to hire permanent staff was logical, a natural response to our organisation’s growth that was made possible by a small operating grant from the municipal arts council. After being financed exclusively through project grants for more than 6 years – public funding programs that provide no guarantee to any or all of the requested monies – the arrival of modest funds renewed on a two-year cycle was a relief and a celebrated accomplishment. We had reached the first step in organisational sustainability.

However, hiring a general coordinator also marked VIVA!’s first major structural shift away from an entirely shared endeavour towards an autonomous one. While this was done to facilitate the increasingly labourious collaborative process, it also made visible the inherent unsustainability of the platform as it was originally conceived. For the initiative to persist, change was necessary.

Action, Alice de Visscher, 2011. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

Action, Alice de Visscher, 2011. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

When It Changes

It is evident that some adaptation is required as an initiative of any sort develops, particularly a collaborative one. To think otherwise would assume that all initiatives begin in their ideal form. This is rarely true. From limited funds to technical learning curves, the first iteration is the real version of the dream (manifest but likely compromised or scaled back). A second and third chance can allow for meaningful fine-tuning of both process and form. It is in this repetition that clarity takes shape and the learning provided by the previous experiences can be reintegrated to better align the dream with its reality. But at some point, inherently, these shifts stop refining and start expanding under the motto of bigger, better, more.

This type of expansion, which is currently at the heart of most organisational growth in Canada, is linked to a neoliberal pressure to demonstrate health and relevance through adaptability and consistent development. For fear of becoming complacent, homeostasis, a well-balanced context in which to reflexively and creatively execute our work, is not an option. We do not ask how to keep focus in a constantly shifting context, but rather how to thrive in it.

These capitalist values of perpetual growth have been internalized by many non-profits in the cultural sector. After years of constantly defending our value through an ability to do more with less (under the constant fear of funding cuts and fuelled by the belief that we will eventually be rewarded for our sacrifices), we reach a point at which we can no longer tell if we are privileging the sustainability of the organisation or the needs of the communities we are serving. And, because there is pain in admitting that we (organizations or initiatives) are no longer suited for a context – or that the context is not suited for us – we adapt to persist, regardless of whether we should or not.

Action artifact, Tomasz Szrama, 2013. Photo: Christian Bujold

Action artifact, Tomasz Szrama, 2013. Photo: Christian Bujold

When Will It End

Since I was hired, VIVA!, like most non-profit organizations (I will venture to claim), is constantly making decisions to not quit, to adapt for the sake of sustainability. While this can be commendable, the concern lies in adapting to the point at which we are no longer the thing we set out to be, or worse, we are no longer a thing that is truly needed.

My challenge over the years has been to ensure that the organization’s desire to persist does not distance us from our values, that our repetition does not privilege our own continuity over the collective interests and needs of our community. This is more difficult than I had expected. For a collaborative platform like VIVA!, there is temptation to opt for a more efficient, normative and autonomous structure while instituting administrative stability. However, by resisting equating our organizational success with independence, we ensure that the initiative remains an active collaboration characterized by co-dependence. This is important because I have come to see our mutual reliance on each other’s financial, material and artistic contributions as a strategy by which to gauge the continued relevance of the platform within our cultural landscape.

Our partners’ enduring willingness to support VIVA! demonstrates that we provide something that cannot be achieved individually. In addition to the more obvious and practical benefits such as pooling resources, multiplying publics, and dividing expenses, working together also allows us to offer artists the opportunity to work in challenging, unpredictable and risk-taking ways that would be impossible to support individually in any durational form.

Within this logic of purposeful co-dependence, I suspect that when VIVA!’s shared benefits cease to match the investment required of our partners (due to shifts in context or practice), they will no longer be willing to contribute to the platform’s existence. Having become parasitic, the initiative will be forced to dissolve.

This self-destruct logic was unconsciously built into the organization in 2006, but is actively preserved by me because it operates as a barometer measuring our pertinence amongst our peers. The collaborative structure keeps us in check. While it is admittedly uncertain, it ensures that we are responding to shared community interests and not just continuing our activities for the sake of singular longevity. As such, VIVA! has privileged remaining relevant over becoming sustainable.

 

Workshop, TouVA, 2009. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

Workshop, TouVA, 2009. Photo: Guy L’Heureux

 

 

What Drives Us? Thoughts on Festival Sustainability

SOPHIE LE-PHAT HO & KATJA MELZER

ABSTRACT: The idea of addressing the issue of festival sustainability came up during the preparations for The HTMlles 11 | ZÉR0 FUTUR{E}, in Montreal – a city of festivals. As part of the festival programming, a forum was created which gathered local and international festival professionals. A second forum took place one year later during the CYNETART festival in Dresden 2015, bringing in more critical voices and personal perspectives.

 

Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX (Montreal) 2014. 

Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX (Montreal) 2014.

 

Festivals are interesting creatures. They usually emerge from, with and for a specific community and help to build it. Because they are usually meant to be recurrent, with time, festivals become bigger and institutionalize. Sometimes, they disappear. Often, they disappear because they are underfunded, lose relevance, and/or because organizers leave the field due to often precarious working conditions. Within the current non-profit art world festival organizers need to be very creative to assure the survival of these initiatives while also constantly questioning their mandate or raison-d’être.

htmlles_festival_sustainability_discussion_sophiebehindpalmtree_

Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX, 2014.

About The HTMlles: Feminist Festival of Media Arts + Digital Culture

The idea of addressing the issue of festival sustainability came up during the preparations for The HTMlles 11 | ZÉR0 FUTUR{E}. The HTMlles is a feminist media arts festival, founded in 1997 in Montreal – a city of festivals. All year-round, visitors and Montrealers have the opportunity to attend over 100 different festivals presenting music, theatre, comedy, food and more. The cultural scene is quite dense and in certain areas highly competitive; public and private funds are limited as is the attention of audiences. Working on the concept for the HTMlles’ 11th edition in 2014, various questions arose concerning the current and future relevance of the festival mandate, new ways to reach out to different audiences while staying pertinent for the community, working conditions of staff and volunteers, strategic partnerships and many more.

As part of the festival programming, a forum was created which gathered local and international festival professionals. In a public roundtable discussion and internal workshop sessions, strategies towards a long-term impact of cultural work, as well as best-practices and their possible implementation in different geopolitical contexts were presented and discussed.

In terms of The HTMlles, we shared our concerns around the competitive context for festivals, the lack of appropriate resources, the expectation from funders to make money, and the pressure on human resources to produce a major festival almost from scratch every two years. The HTMlles was founded by Studio XX, a feminist artist-run centre focused on technological exploration, creation and critical reflection. From its origins in the 90s, as a gathering of women web artists who wanted to exchange IRL, The HTMlles became a more ambitious new media art festival of which the funding and organizational structure gradually detached itself from Studio XX (different grants and budgets from the operational funding of the centre; different staff hired on contract). These changes had their benefits (seemingly growth and development, artistic freedom) but also their limits or drawbacks, namely the exhaustion that came with building a new infrastructure for each edition. We realized that The HTMlles historically served as a catalyst for Studio XX in terms of experimentation, presentation and visibility. Namely, the previous edition implemented a new model that addressed competition and scarcity of resources: the festival partnered with other feminist artist-run centres as well as research centres in order to bring different feminist communities together but also to mutualize resources. However, these outcomes were short lived since the festival team was not permanent. Moreover, given overlapping responsibilities, tensions would systematically occur between the permanent and the contractual staff.

Following the collective reflection and skillsharing that took place during the work sessions of the forum in Montreal, we came up with a series of recommendations to make The HTMlles a more sustainable endeavour. Essentially, we proposed that the permanent team of Studio XX be responsible for organizing the festival in order to assure continuity and sustainable development. Given the systemic precarity of cultural workers, this would entail cutting down on other projects in order to integrate the festival into the workflow. We also identified which event formats and which partnerships were successful (both artistically and professionally) and therefore worth pursuing and fostering. The upcoming 12th edition was organized taking all our recommendations into consideration. We shall soon see the results and reassess the new strategies as the next edition takes place in November 2016.

About the Online Publication

The first forum which took place during The HTMlles 11, in 2014 in Montreal, sparked an interest in continuing the exchange while opening it up to additional professionals working and experimenting with new formats. A second forum took place one year later during the CYNETART festival in Dresden 2015, bringing in more critical voices and personal perspectives.

CYNETART 2015 | TMA Hellerau, Festspielhaus Hellgrau. Photo: © David Pinzer, David Pinzer Fotografie, http:// www.david-pinzer.de

CYNETART 2015 | TMA Hellerau, Festspielhaus Hellgrau. Photo: © David Pinzer, David Pinzer Fotografie, http://www.david-pinzer.de

This online publication seeks to shed light on the topic of “festival sustainability” following a very hands-on approach. Festival organizers, curators and independent cultural workers share their daily-work experiences and ideas to develop sustainable structures in the areas of funding, organization, community outreach and socio-political context. Acknowledging that festivals run on different models, grassroots collectives were invited along with more institutionalized organizations to share their approaches towards sustainable cultural work.

Although not everyone who participated in the meetings contributed to this present publication; many of the thoughts and ideas that have been expressed in a formal or informal way found their way into it. While focusing on festivals, the texts can be seen as part of a larger discussion around cultural sustainability, hopefully encouraging more engaging future debates.

 

 

Self-Powered Communities: An Overview of Theories of Social Sustainability

HAJNAL SZOLGA

ABSTRACT: Sustainability may be examined from an economic, political, environmental, or cultural concerns viewpoint, but can it be also be viewed through a social lens? I would like to link the concept of sustainability to the constructive skills of humans by looking at the case of community-based cultural events and festivals.Sustainability is a term used not only in the natural and social sciences, but in architecture, design, and the arts as well. Mostly, we encounter the use of environmental sustainability in the context of current and urgent questions of climate change and global warming. Sustainable development is also a popular expression in urban planning, as well as in sociological and ecological research. Sustainability may be examined from an economic, political, environmental, or cultural viewpoint, but can it be also viewed through a social lens? I would like to link the concept of sustainability to the constructive skills of humans by looking at the case of community-based cultural events and festivals. If the meaning of sustainable is “to sustain itself,” we have to find an answer to what is the festival itself, or what makes a festival sustainable? There are many factors that affect an event’s success and long-term capacity, such as economic stability, specialized knowledge and technology, or the professional network. However, in this article I will focus on grassroots-, community cohesion- and social mission-based approaches of the human construction process. As a framework, I will use among others the idea of “Sustainability Revolution” which is at the basis of the theory of “The Three Es” (ecology / environment, economy/employment, equity/equality).1 By reviewing the ideas of several thinkers we can understand: What drives us? What is the aim of our activities? To change, expand, learn, or share? How can we ensure the sustainability of our events, preventing them from becoming the victims of profit-orientation, poor quality, or “mainstream” movement?

Photo: Ildikó Répáczky

Photo: Ildikó Répáczky

The need for community cohesion

The largest community organizing force lies in religion or ideology and philosophical systems. Its secret is a worldview of unity, one that creates a sense of belonging and togetherness in community members. Anthropologists such as Csányi or Sperber would use the term “beliefs” for this. The latter distinguishes between intuitive and reflective beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are those that stem from experience and innate predisposition, those that change less from culture to culture.We could say that these beliefs are biologically determined. However, there are also reflective beliefs, that are responsible for cultural diversity. Reflective beliefs are very different from culture to culture, for example, in interpretation of art. The famous Hungarian biologist, biochemist, and ethologist Vilmos Csányi writes that the ideal community is grounded in common belief (ideology, tradition), common action (doing the act together), and equal participation (the influence of the individual in communal decisions). From these three elements originates the practice of fealty (loyalty of the individual to the community). Csányi refers to this as social construction.2 Through this system of organizational skills, we reconstruct thoughts and language, but also objects or abstract models, structures, and rituals. The ritual expression of community belief can be a festival itself. However, this is not sufficient, namely because instead of relying on the hierarchy in the group, the maintenance of community planning and mutual responsibility, based on democratic relations, requires regular and transparent communication.

The origins of human actions

Sociobiologists and genetic reductionists posit that all of our actions are determined by self-interest and selfishness of genes.3 Marshall Shalins writes that the nature of man is a restless desire for power, and society is a set of relationships formed by the pursuit of private interests. “Organization is the socialized realization of desire,” he wrote.4 The thesis of Bourdieu states that in modern society, communities are organized into “fields” or “gaming spaces” through common interests and goals. Such a field can be a sector of the arts, or the political sphere. Some fields are more sustainable, having more available resources. What are these resources? Bourdieu uses the term “capital” for these: economic and financial capital affects one’s cultural capital, which symbolizes one’s knowledge and abilities, but also social class. This can be transmitted from generation to generation. Cultural capital defines one’s human (or symbolic) capital, which corresponds to their studies, job, prestige and social status based on respect and honour. Finally, the fourth source is one’s social capital, which is our social network, the affiliation to the communities, and to fields. He calls this “socialization.” Similar to Csányi’s social construction theory, this introduces the concept of social and cultural reproduction, which is knowledge, information, and transmission of existing cultural values and norms from generation to generation. Cultural reproduction refers to the mechanisms by which continuity of cultural experience is sustained across time.5

Cultural reproduction

So to our “What drives us?” question, the theories of Csányi, Bourdieu, and Sahlins suggest reconstruction and reproduction as answers. Humans feel the biological urge to transmit knowledge as genetic material, either referencing a tradition in the past, or visualizing a future innovation.The examined festival “itself” is a representational process, in which the subject is culture, and thus the sharing of knowledge and vision, which seeks to maintain the beliefs of the community. Sperber gives a bizarre but striking epidemiological analogy to this, which fits well with the ever-recurring themes of genes and memes.

“The representations can be cultural in various ways, there are among those that spread slowly between the generations, we call these traditions and these are similar to endamias. Other representations, which are characteristics of modern culture, in the whole population spread very quickly, but they have very short life, we call them trends, and these are similar to epidemics.”6

Visions for sustainable communities

Now that we have explored the object of our inner urge as a concept, we shall examine the form in which it can be used long term. All of the above-mentioned social models trace out hierarchical structures and dystopian visions. However, history has shown that hierarchy-based social structures have failed. What is the structure then that creates sustainable events? Daniel Quinn argues that modern civilization is inoperable and self-destructive (see Dawkins’s “killer memes”), and that social dissatisfaction is caused by unsustainable hierarchal social structures. He writes that we need a modern understanding of “new tribal community.”7 This does not have to look like the old tribal stereotype of “cavemen,” since foraging in the natural community is not a viable or even possible solution for the billions of people on Earth today. He consistently describes the revolution not as a movement to “go back” to some earlier style of living, but rather, a movement to “go forward” into something new. Quinn distinguishes between the concept of “the tribe” and “the commune,” the latter exemplified by the product of hippie movements, a community-based coexistence, where in many cases the common belief of ensuring sustainability is lacking. Quinn’s modern age example for “the tribe” is the circus or the theater. I believe the festival would also fit in that analogy. The community spirit (a common purpose for the common good) brings about cultural reproduction, which provides wellbeing for the members, and maintains the social model. In the “tribal model”, the role of the “leader” is important but does not demand a hierarchy. Rather, that role is considered to be as equally valuable and indispensable as other roles. Examples of such leaders could be an acrobat, an actor, or a curator. Common creation and cooperation allows the success of common production. This is the principle of interdependence whereby the relationships between members of the group are all equal to each other. Within a given group, recognition of both individual and community development therefore facilitates sustainabillity.

A festival based on community spirit

Similarly, researchers of population genetics are examining the sustainable social models of ancient cultures.8 It has been shown that “egalitarian community culture” based on equality reduces competition and differences within the group, and increases competition and differences between groups. This principle provides an answer on how not to fall into the approach of the “mainstream” and how we can hold on to uniqueness and biodiversity in the community. Quinn’s “modern tribalism” model reminds me of the Hungarian O.Z.O.R.A. psychedelic tribal gathering, which is essentially centred on music, but also an art and lifestyle festival.9 It promotes the principles of environmental sustainability (use of renewable energy sources, soft technology, green solutions, community gardening), and it also represents the community spirit that is the drive of the festival as a “ritual.” This is a special sub-cultural community with surprisingly strong cohesion, where the members call themselves “ozorians.” The ozorians initiated a modern tradition through their annual meeting, which goes beyond common musical interests and lifestyle similarities, pervaded with faith in universal values and in nature. I do not intend to shepherd our thoughts toward spirituality or blind faith, but scientific texts also respect the relationships of spirit and matter. We might call this “consciousness” or “commitment” as well. I wonder if our current actions and events are conscious? As Quinn renewed the concept of tribal culture, perhaps it would be advisable to think about a new interpretation of tradition in a modern context. Do we transform our traditions and events and transmit our values consciously, or do we allow them to be forgotten and replaced by new trends?

Human as re-creator

Western interpretation and modern reconstruction of traditions propose a number of further discourses, such as the cultural differences between East and West, the social effects of globalization, desacralization, the relationship between generations, use of technology, acceleration of the world, singularity, etc. Events based on traditions are ceremonial and sacred. During these ocassions, people step out of the volatile and unstable profane time, back into the mythical primordial time, and again remake their presence.10 Eliade writes that this “historical present” is eternal. Modern sacred events evoke artist Hermann Nitsch’s actions in “Orgies Mysterien Theater.” He interprets religious events through the language of contemporary, experimental performance art. But behind the sacred robe, he expresses rebellion against social and political conventions. The sacrality is transvaluated to the solemnity of presence through Nitsch’s performance art, and protest is the basic drive of his actions. The protest as a strong objection impacts community cohesion because it expresses a political, cultural, or religious statement. Instead of the initially introduced “beliefs” and “ideologies” let us use the term “statement,” which offers a framework and commitments to the community on which it can agree. The frameworks create rules, as mentioned above, which have to ensure the authority of the individual and the community. The authority connected to an event or a festival manifests itself as freedom of creation, which entails responsibility and consciousness because each reconstruction of us creates value and heredity.

In a nutshell

Sumarizing the references above, we need new, interdisciplinary, and alternative approaches for our social, economic, and ecological challenges. A holistic review is needed for which the sustainable sciences may provide clues. The object of the sustainable sciences, the “Sustainability Revolution” needs a non-hierarchical, decentralized organizational structure with revolutionary keywords. They are managment of ecology/environment, including democratically based issues related to economy/employment and equity/equality. These three contemporary terms complete the concept of “The Three Es” and we supplement it with a fourth one: education. Our cultural events and festivals fill the role of non-formal education and link past and future generations with the principle of interdependence. Through education, we gain and transmit knowledge, and we are able to reconstruct our social habits and traditions into a sustainable form. Individuals reproduce themselves and their knowledge through cultural mediums. But because of interdependence, community and society can therefore do the same. This is the force that drives us.

 

ENDNOTES

1 Andres R. Edwards: The Sustainability Revolution. Portrait of paradigm shift, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2006.
2 Vilmos Csányi:Az emberi viselkedés, Budapest,Sanoma Budapest Kiadói Rt., 2006.
3 Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene, USA, Oxford University Press, 2006.
4 Marshall Sahlins: Culture and Practical Reason, Chichago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1976.
5 Pierre Bourdieu: Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
6 Dan Sperber: Explaining Culture, Blackwell, 1996.
7 Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure,Broadway Books, 2000
8 Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Christopher Bohm.
9 https://ozorafestival.eu/
10 Mircea Eliade:The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion,A Harvest.Book,Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York.