Culture and economics do not make strange bedfellows.

I was given the opportunity this week to attend the Forum D’Avignon Ruhr 2012 at the Zeche Zollverein on March 8th and 9th. The event, organized by the european centre for creative economy (ecce) in Dortmund in cooperation with the Forum D’Avignon, Paris, was meant to explore how culture and economy can work together to shape a sustainable future. Some of the questions that came to the table were:

 Where do culture and economy converge? How can they enter into a mutually beneficial relationship? How can we effectively organize dialog betwen politicians, the creative industries and business? What opportunities and hindrances do the digital world offer us in terms of freedom and democracy? How can we create real and sustainable change drawing on creative impulses? Or as Charles Landry asked in his presentation: What is the cost of not thinking of imagination, creativity, culture, design, art and heritage?

Our local newpaper, the WAZ, referred to the event, which was attended by 175 experts including some big name politicians as an “ideaschmiede” (an idea kiln). However, mining for ideas, like mining for coal is a messy, disruptive and strenuous activity. A bit like trekking the Himalayas in the fog in search of a moment of truth and enlightenment. The French philosopher, Alain Badiou said that “truth is not about interpretation, but about exposing the gaps in our understanding. Truth in this sense disrupts power. Something must happen in order for there to be something new… “  This willingness to risk exposure is an act of courage – a commitment to living dangerously. It requires imagination, invention, cleverness, innovation and, if I may say so, a sense of humor.

German Author and Blogger Sascha Lobo and Charles Landry, Founder and Director of Comedia

For the most part, this meeting of the Forum d’Avignon Ruhr was a tame and rather somber affair, trodding along familiar paths and missing – in my opinion – an enormous opportunity to funnel the energy and intelligence of the people gathered in the Japanese design cathedral that is the SANAA-Building. Although, to give credit where due, the event was brilliantly organized in terms of logistics, AV, attention to detail, delegate comfort, friendly staff, precise translators and wonderful food.

SANAA-Building, currently home to the Folkwang University Design Faculty

However, the great cement walls were bare (no art, no Twitter wall, no graphic reporters visually illustrating the discussions, no massive bits of blank paper for scribbling thoughts and reflections…), the participants sat in rows parliament-style and only a few of the 175 experts were given the opportunity to speak (there was only a single 10 minute Q&A session all day). Maybe this is the cost of inviting politicians like Hannelore Kraft, Sigmar Gabriel and Ute Schäfer – although I suspect those three would have welcomed a more creatively messy environment if only for a change of pace from “business as usual.” Chairman of the Forum d’Avignon Nicolas Seydoux gave a rousing pre-lunch speech which pretty much sums up the overall tonality of the forum – at least during the morning session: “Pessimism is everywhere and lots of people have good reason to be pessimistic. But not the people in this room, not the ones responsible for culture. And yet we are pessimistic because many of us no longer really believe in creativity: creative business, creative service, creative industry, creative culture.”

Ouch. But there were passionate and optimistic people there – both on the speaker program and in the audience and here are a few of the highlights which I feel are worth passing on:

Charles Landry during the opening speeches

I am admittedly a longtime fan of his work, but Charles Landry delivered the goods again with a free-speaking presentation accompanied by graffiti-style images from his travels. Probably not the first time he gives this presentation to be fair, but he did so with enthusiasm and wit and you just BELIEVED him. Three excerpts from his presentation which I noted:

“The digitization of society has sped up the process of change so that the future seems unpredictable and disconcerting. It has also created a tangible bridge between ‚here’ and ‚there’ – the tyranny of distance has been flattened. However, the more we network and navigate the more importance the quality of our cities and spaces take on.”

 ”Sensory experience combined with emotional effect is what drives communication and makes the invisible, visible and communicates your intent. Cities need to create space for generating creativity, for harvesting potential, stimulating, surprising. Too much is currently invested in the containers and not enough on content.”

 ”Cities are a flexible, fluid combination of hardware, software, allware. What are you bringing to the party?”

Deborah Carter, Director of Sponsoring and Partnerships of PICNIC in Amsterdam was another shining light. Her obvious heartfelt belief in the power of strategic partnerships or “flow of talent” as she called it, was contagious. I particularly loved her description of PICNIC: “We are fiercely multidisciplinary and cross sectoral, bringing together creative minds from business, government, the cultural and non-profit sectors, to help tackle the big, hairy, audacious challenges of our time.” Let’s go!

The soft spoken artist, Prof. Jochen Gerz, who is renowned for his works in public space, made a poignant remark about today’s passive society of voyeurs where 80,000 spectators watch 22 people play a game. “Our society is a bit topsy turvy when it comes to creative participation. Currently 22 people play the game in front of 80,000 spectators. Ideally, the game would have 80,000 players and 22 spectators.” 

Author and blogger Sascha Lobo, got a bit caught up on the topic of intellectual property rights in the digital age, but he did make one comment which is probably important to remember in today’s digitized world as such: “New technologies have always eradicated or replaced existing ones. With the internet, this process is happening very fast. However, the printing press didn’t write any books – neither has the internet. What the internet has done is redefine how we think and use culture with its promise of permanent renewal.”

SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel came across as smart and thoughtful and I appreciated his comment: “Currently we only talk about digital progress and it has an enormous potential for innovation and emancipation. However, we have to continually ask what it contributes to freedom, democracy and justice. How will digitally illiterate people participate in the decision-making process?”

And then there was the famous artist and director Hermann Vaske, whose exhibit “Why are you Creative?” was officially opened during the forum (You can visit it in the groundfloor gallery of the Sanaa building). Overall, he seemed a bit blasee about the whole idea of creativity – or maybe he’s just bored about being asked again and again to define the word. But I liked what he said: “Ideas are everywhere. It’s up to us to reach out and grab them.” and I also liked the Robert Louis Stephenson quote he shared: “It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” In case you are not familiar with his project, you can watch the trailer here:

Why Are you Creative? Trailer (Hermann Vaske)

Another personal highlight of my day was meeting Irish writer Claire Kilroy in the lunch line and having lunch with her. I hope she won’t mind me sharing this, but I found her answer to my question about how she approaches the writing process inspiring: “I approach it slowly so I don’t scare myself or my ideas.” I was so impressed by her quiet confidence and intensity that I ordered her book Tenderwire on my iPhone during the forum.

Tenderwire, by Claire Kilroy

Looking forward to reading that.

All in all, despite the fact that I am in no position to judge to which extent the forum in its formal guise met its objectives – perhaps the real mining for ideas took place in the margins,  at the dinner, the coffee breaks, the smoking circles outside, the hotel bar – the importance of the task is unquestionable. And flipping through the CV booklet they passed out – the competencies to do the work are certainly out there. So it will be interesting to see what comes out of this process. As General Manager of the ecce, Prof. Dieter Gorny, summed up in his closing comments: “We have to move ourselves out of the building – out of our mindset – to find formulas for a lab of the future. Then we can develop the right strategies for convincing the right people.”

Seydoux wisely said, in this respect: “Great innovations are very rare, but small improvements happen every day.”

My deepest thanks to the organizers at the ecce who invited me to this forum and I hope that my comments and criticisms are taken in the constructive way they are meant. I am indeed very thankful to have taken part.

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