“Tools for an Unknown Future” – or how to realise a project with international partners

OLIVER BAURHENN

ABSTRACT: Realising a cultural project with a multitude of partners over a long period and with a good amount of money involved is not an easy task. Nevertheless it should be a pleasure to exchange, to think jointly, to deal with artists and to get in touch with cultural differences. Therefore here are some bullet points condensing the experience of a project called ECAS taken as an example of multilateral, global, cultural interaction.

 

© Oliver Baurhenn. ECAS project meeting in Berlin in 2013

© Oliver Baurhenn. ECAS project meeting in Berlin in 2013

In the beginning: Some remarks

Leaving your comfort zone is nice and often heard advice not only in your private life but also in your life as a cultural worker. I won’t talk about whether this is necessary or not as it might be quite nice at home – I know. Setting sail in an international project demands quite a lot of effort but you will be rewarded; therein lies the old wisdom that you won’t only get to know others or the Other, you will also get to know yourself better. You will encounter what is inherent to international projects; there will be joy if all goes well and you will be filled with relish. Then again…

The future is contingent. One never knows what is going to happen or when, how or what the outcome will be, especially in the process of organising an event that is funded by public (taxpayer) money. The sword of Damocles hangs like a pendulum, constantly swinging over your head. Are the expenses justified, did I get enough tenders, can I pay friends to do something – I know they are among the top in their field – but isn’t it corruption? You can rarely approach a funding body with these questions, as they have the same sword over their heads.

A publicly funded event, for instance a festival that has no institutional funding as do museums or opera houses, is always rooted somewhere. It is clear to everyone that you need roots so as not to lose your character, your point of view, your attitude towards your event’s core spirit. If you step away from your ethical and moral backbone you will be easily interchangeable.

Within Europe there are many funding schemes in diverse countries. These sources allow you to realise your ideas, such as a festival. Nevertheless, most funding schemes are national. Some funding might come from your city council or your borough. Of course you wish to organise something unique, especially as yours is a festival that reaches out beyond the realm of the local/national funding territory. But, where does your festival’s territory end, and where does it begin?

I am sure that you’d love to invite the whole world to explore and share in your ideas and your perspective, something that is only magnified the more you strive to generate dialogue and ideas that address the future. You of course now find yourself on the edge of your funding scheme’s territory, a treacherous position as you shouldn’t forget that you’re using your region’s taxpayer money. Often the funding stops at your national borders – but of what use are these borders if you are acting globally?

An example: ECAS. European Money for 5 years, Constant struggle, Amazing people, sometimes bumpy pleasures

The project ECAS – Networking Tomorrow’s Art for an Unknown Future started as an idea shared between 9 partners from 8 different European countries.1 We wanted to submit a multiannual application for a 5 year European Union funded project that would receive up to 50% funding for a maximum of 2 million Euro. And we did submit it. It took three attempts but then in January 2010 our efforts were rewarded. Our applicant group decided to put a strong emphasis on co-operative working structures, thus the core of the application was written together by all partners and mirrored a shared range of pressing ideas at that time (2009). The aim was to realise the project on a transnational European level, actively ignoring national boundaries within Europe. Each partner had the same voice and the same responsibilities. This idealistic approach meant that constant exchange, openness and training in communication skills were persistently demanded of each partner. The quality of artistic presentation was as important as the exchange of ideas, tasks and responsibilities between the partners (the process).

Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world: the effects of the financial crisis post-2008 affected many of the organisations within the ECAS group: cultural funding cuts of 30% in the UK; nearly the same cuts in the Netherlands; huge changes, restructuring and of course financial cuts within the Austrian national broadcasting service; political insecurities affecting the level of city funding in Kraków, Poland; the devastating effects of the last financial crisis on a small country like Latvia; the political standstill in Belgium… Only in Norway and Germany did the struggle remain a fairly “regular” one, although with Norway’s transition to a more nationalist government and Germany’s specific cultural funding system, difficulties were also encountered when searching for ways to generate the necessary funds to match the European Union grant money.

It was also definitely not helpful to see a return to old-fashioned notions of nation-states in Europe. As we all wish not to be affected within the cultural sector, these poisonous ideas sometimes diffuse slowly in people’s minds – also in the minds of your project partners. We had to fight against increasingly national cultural agendas, which also created quite a challenge within the network as all partners tried to balance new demands from their respective countries while at the same time exploring new ways to cooperate on a European level. Often we searched for the strengths in the situation of each country, which sometimes meant that our project members with easier access to funding took on more responsibilities for some parts of the project than others. As much as we tried to make the best use of the different structures within Europe to the advantage of the project, it is a new and challenging way of doing things. The problems we encountered were not on a curatorial level nor on the level of artistic output. Rather the challenge was working on a pioneering supranational level that still hinges on outdated (national) structures that we, as a project, can’t easily abolish but are only able to find time consuming work-arounds for. Naturally this challenge sometimes created tensions within our working group.

ECAS started as a loose assembly of likeminded festivals with the aim to reflect on their public and societies, examine links to other fields of art beyond the core of sound, and investigate the festival format as a processual format (Laboratory) that changes the more we gain insight into what a festival was, is and can be.

The ECAS project had an impact on several levels:

1. Evaluation, re-thinking and transformation of organisation and festival formats

2. Development of low-threshold access to our initiatives and events for a diverse public without losing strong standards of curation and quality

3. Introduction of new diverse publics to the niche of contemporary sound cultures and broadening the knowledge of this realm to diverse milieus all over Europe

4. Production of challenging new artistic productions and strengthening artistic mobility via tools for organisational and artistic cooperation

5. Fostering a deep exchange of knowledge within Europe and beyond, which itself was stimulated because of the project’s challenging, non-hierarchical mindset (collective curatorial discussions and decision-making processes)

6. Creation of best practices for European and international co-operation based on mutual understanding and respect

Lastly, and perhaps most telling of the project’s successes in the long-term, is the creation of an international network of festivals and organisations, called ICAS. Sparked by the ECAS project, the International Cities of Advanced Sound network has become a global agent of change, creation, mobilisation and connection within the realm of sound, music and related art forms.

The essential value of such a network is not measurable in economic terms. The value rather lies in the “environment” such initiatives create; spaces in which innovative projects can be developed. Moreover, the network became a system that embodies some of the ideals of a European culture. It created a dynamic and inclusive structure of cooperation, where members are equally valued regardless of their status, where communication is horizontal, and where cultural differences are appreciated as an asset and not as a threat.

The final question within the ECAS project was: What are the tools for an Unknown Future? Interestingly, while writing the application in 2008/09 we were thinking of digital or online tools without realising that these are only numeric facilitators of communication, knowledge sharing and exchange. What online tools don’t do or foster is reflection on social relations, individual approaches, or contexts and methods of creating intriguing environments of learning, experience and advancement. We thus realised that there are other, more socially-oriented, skills needed to deal with the Unknown and to create a collaborative environment as a mixed European group that was stretching out geographically from three hundred kilometres above the polar circle (Tromsø), southward over the alps (Graz), and stretching eastward from Manchester and The Hague via Berlin, Dresden and Krakow, up to Riga.2 Additionally, we involved partners for special actions from non-EU regions as Kyiv (Ukraine), Montevideo (Uruguay), Montreal (Canada), and Boulder (USA) and included them in our joint environment.

© Oliver Baurhenn. ICAS meeting in Montreal in 2016.

© Oliver Baurhenn. ICAS meeting in Montreal in 2016.

A toolbox: 10 things you should keep in mind

Following the experience of working closely together in a group made up of nine diverse partners over five years, and in the ICAS Network with around 30 further partners from all over the world, I’ve attempted to summarize this endeavour into some bullet points that might be seen as a little toolbox and guide for a successful global project:

  1. It is always good to know one’s enemy. Partners can become enemies if you don’t make an effort to get to know them a bit better beforehand. It is definitely advised to strive for an equal and balanced partnership. If you know what you can expect from each other, then you can start developing a shared vision of what you want to do together.
  2. Now that you know your partner(s) you can start to develop a shared vision. Take care with your communication tools and always remember that it is better to meet in person than only via telecommunication tools. The latter are of great use in the implementation process but if you want to sketch-out bigger ideas and plans, then meet face to face.
  3. If you are working with different organisations then make sure the representative you are working with has the full support of his or her colleagues or higher ranks to negotiate on their behalf. Nothing is more annoying than to develop ideas and agree on things, only to have them spoiled by non-present persons.
  4. Be patient! Especially when you work with partners from different backgrounds. Try to find common ground, and don’t forget to ask questions if your gut tells you that something is wrong. Get to know your differences! It greatly helps the whole project if you can “surf” on different cultural policies or funding schemes that can be accessed by your different partners. If you get annoyed then use humour to get rid of your frustration. Your partners will be more open to mirror your clichés if you use humour, and everyone will feel less offended and be open to better understanding one another.3
  5. Pidgin English: Do you understand me? In international collaborations it is quite rare that partners learned English as a first language. Besides being patient in order to understand what other non-English speakers are telling you, also listen carefully and don’t hesitate to ask again if you don’t grasp the idea. What the hell is s/he talking about? Take a deep breath and don’t be too shy to ask them to repeat their idea.
  6. Now that you’ve gained a mutual understanding and commitment from all sides, don’t forget to involve colleagues from your partner organisations here and there! Create an environment that makes them feel welcome to join and add to the multifaceted voices. Ensuring organisational commitment should not only be considered as work, it is an ongoing work in progress that needs to be nurtured throughout the duration of the partnership.
  7. Don’t be afraid to formalise things! You are very good friends now but culturally friendships have different definitions. Some respect friendship as something that should not be burdened, other cultures ask for the opposite. Then another is asking you for endless trust and forgiveness – nobody is without fault. I would say that this wonderful challenge will bring you many rewarding moments. Nevertheless, it is always good to lay out a pathway if there is conflict. Agree on guidelines! Formalise the relationship, put the tasks and responsibilities of administration down in written form and integrate what you decided into your organisation’s policy.
  8. Discover what synergies between partners can be created. Use the different strengths to deliver more than what was promised. Realising a joint project should be fun and a learning process. There is always potential for conflict, but use that energy to find interesting solutions and don’t insist on your ideas if they are not viable. Keep in mind Benjamin Franklin’s wisdom: If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking. Speak about your experiences with your partners and share results and knowledge. Moreover, don’t forget to continuously monitor the partnership using both quantitative and qualitative indicators. Facts help to support your proposals.
  9. Envision your partnership’s sustainability. Aside from continuous evaluations and adaptations to your working process, imagine that your partnership could go on beyond the project’s lifetime. Go over all the things that went well or have been well done and of course also check what went wrong and ask why. This seems easy, but oftentimes partners are too exhausted from their joint project and forget to evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly. Concerning new project ideas, it is always easier to work with a core of good old partners to which a few newcomers are added, than to start completely anew. The journey is the goal and you want to do it with people you know.
  10. Money makes the world go round – or not! Financial capacity and sustainability can be seen as both a concern and prerequisite for sustaining the partnership. However, while this is important and should be considered, motivation and interest are crucial and these do not always cost money. Partnerships require time and effort. Healthy partnerships operate on a basis of equality and mutual recognition. The parties should be both compatible (equal enough) and complementary (different enough). Throughout the partnership, all involved must be willing to work and make it last. It is all about co-operation and not competition.

The future is contingent – but this does not mean it can’t be fun!

 

 

ENDNOTES

1 The ECAS project: European Cities of Advanced Sound – Networking Tomorrow’s Art for an Unknown Future was proposed by 9 European Organisations (DISK-Initiative Bild & Ton e.V./ CTM Festival, Berlin; Trans-Media-Akademie Hellerau e.V./ CynetArt Festival, Dresden; ORF musikprotokoll im steirischen herbst, Graz; Fundacja Tone – Muzyka i Nowe Formy Sztuki / Unsound Festival, Krakow; The Generator Foundation/ TodaysArt Festival, The Hague; Cimatics cic, Brussels; FutureEverything, Manchester; Stiftelsen Insomnia, Tromsø; Biedrība Skanu Mezs, Riga) to the European Union funding scheme Cultur. The project started on June 1, 2010 and ended after 60 months on May 31, 2015. It had a provisioned budget of 3.6 mi Euro of which 50% were European Union subsidies and 50% were funds raised by all organizations. See more: www.icasnetwork.org and www.ecasnetwork.org
2 European Union provides a culture grant scheme for all 28 member states and all associates from the European Economic Area and additionally most of the applicant states (e.g. Albania, Serbia, etc.). 30% of activities and of the budget can be spent outside of EU on activities in non-European Union or associate states.
3 I wanted to say that we are each attributed clichés = Germans are always on time or the like; and there are attributes that are clichés but actually exist, so sometimes being German means that you are acting like a German for the people that you are talking to. So, they will probably mirror this. Often you only see it in their eyes and they don’t let you know, so you have to create an atmosphere where these clichés can be mirrored and you can make jokes about these or the clichés of the others.

 

 

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