Author : Eelco Couvreur.
Translated from Dutch by Maud Vis.
This article has been published by DJ Broadcast.
“We were promised tourists, not refugees”
said Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, summarizing the worries of some of his fellow-countrymen. According to Krastev, Eastern Europeans feel like they have been fooled. The European Union was supposed to bring prosperity, not crises. Krastev would make a perfect guest speaker for We are Europe. This utopian and elitist program, according to the program’s website, is: “a catalyst of the European identity“.
When I read that mission over a year ago, my first reaction was: what European identity are they talking about? Are they referring to the plural identities of the nation states? The neoliberalism and consumerism? Or is it the ever-growing xenophobia they’re referring to? This is exactly the kind of cynicism that We are Europe is trying to fight. Instead of emphasizing failed European projects, the program tries to point out the success stories. They don’t focus on the countries, or different cultures, but instead highlight European commonplaces by facilitating the exchange of artists and visionaries.
Let’s not forget that there actually is, especially on a cultural level, a European identity. Europe can be found in the books we read, the films we see, the music that we stream: from Kraftwerk to Cabaret Voltaire, from Jacques Brel to The Beatles. In 2016 I went to TodaysArt and c/o pop. All We are Europe editions contain an extensive music programme and a conference. That might sound boring, but it’s not. We are Europe reserved the primetime speaking spots on the program for exciting thinkers that challenge you. These festivals are for idealists, not for marketers.
In Cologne, I attended an inspiring lecture by Benji Rogers. The American is the initiator of the Dot Blockchain project. He used technology that is used for the bitcoin to radicalize the music scene. According to Rogers, Blockchain can free the music industry (and the financial sector) of fraud, corruption and piracy. Blockchain makes production chains more transparent. “An artist could, for example, get paid straight by the venue where he’s performing, without the interference of a bank.“
The next panel will be centred around the European cultural inheritance that matters to all of us: music festivals. Speakers from all over the continent come together to speak on the future of European music festivals. Andrez Kajzer of Ment (Ljubljana) speaks on how to organize an event in a small country such as Slovenia (two million inhabitants). Ieva Irbina speaks on behalf of the Latvian Positivus Festival: “The first years we didn’t do well; only two thousand people visited the festival. Now we have 30.000 visitors and have reached our top. Europe is the niche we would like to focus on, because the Lithuanian public only wants to see mainstream artists“
At the same time as Positivus, there will be 27 other festivals taking place in Europe. Iriban: “As a small country it’s more difficult to book artists, but that also makes us more creative.“
“TodaysArt always had an international focus“, continues Tim Terpstra on behalf of the festival from The Hague. “You can show local artists to the world and vice versa. As a festival, we have a responsibility. A lot of things are happening in Europe. We have to embrace those things and do something with them.“
“When does a music festival become a political tool or a business?” That is the main question of the We are Europe program in Cologne. When do you start caring about more than just your own visitors? How do you get a more mixed public? How do you make sure that your festival isn’t just accessible for well-educated, white, young people? What do you do with the ecological footprint your festival leaves behind? How important is creativity for society? Why do festivals get subsidies from the government?
The power of these kinds of conferences is that they don’t aim for direct results. Just like an artist needs the time to get inspired and work on his ideas, We are Europe looks and tests how the music scene can contribute to a better world. This is not done from some kind of misplaced moral superiority, but from a curiosity for “the other“.
In the span of twelve months, We are Europe travels to eight different countries. The past year, ninety artists from Europe, North-Africa, the Middle-East, Ghana and Japan performed on the festivals. We are Europe lets you be a part of the shared vision of 75 journalists, thinkers and cultural entrepreneurs. I saw VJ-art from Iran and listened to music from Istanbul. Dopplereffekt, Antivj and renowned scientists and coders gave an impressive crash course on the big bang.
Olof van Winden (festival director of TodaysArt) co-wrote the mission statement of We are Europe. “When we wrote this plan, everyone in our network wanted to build one Europe. Then Brexit happened. Two weeks later we had a meeting in Barcelona. Our festivals try to give solutions for a new and better world. I think culture is one of the most important things that connects us. But when Europe is under the pressure it is today, and the name of your festival is ‘We are Europe’, you have to be ready to really work for it. After all these horrible events in Europe, I started to see a difference between art programmers and music programmers. The music programmers seemed to wonder why we had to give any attention to these issues. Or as they said it: We’re just a music festival, right?
But according to Winden something’s going on that does touch us all. “The EU is crumbling, but I think Europe is something different. Europe spans from Tromsø to Moscow. Some countries belong to Europe, but aren’t members of the EU. There are other factors that bind Europeans together. It’s that positivism you have to emphasize.“
Does the electronic music scene have a responsibility towards Europe? For a big group of young Europeans, it’s quite common to go to other capitals and explore the local music scenes. They go to Berlin to complete their vinyl collection. They take a low-budget flight to Barcelona, Paris or Tisno for a summer festival. Europe is something we take for granted. We can pay wherever we want with our bank cards, and cross borders without being asked for our passports. But those are privileges. The original values of the EU are crumbling and nobody seems to remember what they are: “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights, including the rights of minorities“. We Are Europe is trying to give these values a new home.
The Cultural Elite
Idealism is important, but there’s also the reality of everyday life. Most visitors of TodaysArt and c/o pop are members of the cultural elite. At the conference, I’m joined by a room full of journalists and artists. We talk about gender neutral toilets at festivals, and sometimes tend to forget that a lot of people struggle to pay their rent every month. That some people worry on a day-to-day basis about having enough money to pay for food. That the issues we’re talking about, are those of a cultural elite. In that respect, we live in an unrealistic, extremely privileged world.
Realizing that can be the first step towards a change that might also touch people outside of our inner circle. We are not business people, but when we believe in something, we stand up for it. I believe that passion can be contagious. That it can inspire you, as Benji Rogers inspired me. What if festivals, following the example of big British football clubs, create a community program that allows people to visit festivals, even if they don’t have the financial means to do so? What if festivals only allow people to enter if they visit in pairs of two, accompanied by someone of a different skin colour? What is a festival books an equal amount of male and female artists? Why not print the timetables and tickets on biodegradable paper? Let your mind run free for a second. Radicalize. If we unite, like We are Europe did, we will come out on top. Let’s hope that in ten years the European Union still exists. That people still have the opportunity to travel to their favourite festivals without showing their passport. That those festivals get subsidies from Brussels. That young people are stimulated and given a platform on which inclusiveness is normalised. That Europe itself will be re-normalized. Just like it’s been before.
We Are Europe is driven by a great curiosity about other cultures, but, according to their latest press release: “The project does not shape Europe’s identity, it has underlined what was already there.” I think they might be on to something.