Over 11,000 people wearing masks arrived from the USA, India, Japan, Germany, Croatia and other European countries. Surrounded by thousands of onlookers, they walked through the streets of the northern Croatian port city of Rijeka for the traditional carnival parade on 23 February. It was the one of the opening highlights of the European Capital of Culture 2020 - and the masquerade ball ended up being the only major event that year for the capital of culture on the Adriatic coast. On 17 March 2020, following the coronavirus outbreak, the city cancelled all 600 events planned by 350 organisations spanning 55 European and non-European countries. It dismissed 59 of those working on the Capital of Culture programme and appointed a new director to develop a programme especially adapted to the pandemic.
“We have now switched the focus to local visitors,” Irena Kregar Šegota, the new director of Rijeka 2020, explained, signalling that the idea of the Capital of Culture—boosting European exchange—was as good as buried.
Since spring 2020, 89 percent of all world cultural heritage sites and 95 percent of all museums, with the exception of short open stints, have been closed. The same applies to fairs, concerts and festivals. In dozens of countries, newemergency laws have been pushed through, which also restrict press and creative freedoms. Artists and cultural workers came up with all kinds of creative ideas during the first lockdown to avoid being silenced but this changed during the second wave of the pandemic. The event calendars were empty and enthusiasm to create alternatives seemed to wane. “Cultural output is in the doldrums worldwide. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the work of international cultural relations,” confirmed Gitte Zschoch, Managing Director of EUNIC, the Association of European Cultural Institutes, which coordinates cultural exchange of 90 countries. “What we believe in and what our work consists of is completely missing right now: the exchange for mutual understanding and to build trust.”
European cities would wither without culture and rural areas would be abandoned without cultural tourism
The international association of women's football to academic associations which research international cultural relations are all left asking how their activities will be paid for, organised and promoted in the future. Even though no cultural institute under the umbrella of EUNIC has had to close and staff have been held onto by all means, Gitte Zschoch describes a time of deep uncertainty. “Everyone is worried that budgets for cultural and educational work with other countries will shrink next year”.
This is precisely what the European and and culture politician Gijs de Vries has warned about: “Culture must not be seen as a cost factor, but should be viewed as an investment,” he said, adding that, once again, culture is beingtreated as a luxury rather than an indispensable part of human existence. Having looked into the impact of the Corona pandemic on the cultural sector, de Vries recently urged the Council of Europe and the EU Parliament to include the cultural sectors in the overall Covid-19 rescue package. Although culture makes up 4.2 percent of the EU's economy, it accounts for just 0.15 percent of the EU budget. In July 2020, the Council approved only 1.6 billion euros for the period between 2021 and 2027, for Creative Europe, the flagship of the European cultural programmes. That is much less than the demands made by the cultural sector. Yet the the digital industry cannot recover without without fresh creative content, says de Vries. European cities would wither without culture and rural areas would be abandoned without cultural tourism. “Culture is part of the solution to how Europe will recover from the Corona pandemic,” says de Vries.
At the same time, the EU is not completely inactive. The European Commission has founded the platform creativesunite.eu to give local, regional and national initiatives a digital stage. But that is not enough, says Gitte Zschoch. “It is understandable that the federal states deal with national funding programmes first, but international and inner-European cultural exchange must stay in focus to counterbalance a re-nationalisation of culture.”
As in many other areas, digital formats have been rolled out. Some, such as audio walks, have been around for a long time, but others are as much in their infancy as European cultural work itself: hackathons, social-media-campaigns, virtual exhibitions, artificial-intelligence language courses.
“Everything that can be done online was done online,” said Gitte Zschoch. The Ethiopian project “Tibeb be Adebabay” (“Art in Public Space”), for example, has been transferred to the digital realm - and with it the definition and conception of public space has been put up for debate. The EUNIC-founded “Nogoonbaatar Eco Art Festival”, which was held in Ulan Bator to address the extreme levels of air pollution in the the Mongolian capital, was postponed until next year. A digital version was ruled out as far too few people had internet access.
The pandemic has brought groups to the fore that otherwise tend to be overshadowed
In Rijeka, too, they no longer needed people to set up stages, presenters to announce the artists nor press people to organise interviews. In the spring, Mayor Vojko Obersnel promised to do everything possible to transform the programme for the digital realm - and promptly recorded a video greeting to Rijeka's twin city of Neuss. His Neuss counterpart Reiner Breuer did likewise.
The year should have seen the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of their town twinning. As well meaning as those video messages were, they stuck rigidly to protocols, whose greatest added value usually lies in the ensuingchampagne reception which allows more open exchanges.
Rijeka 2020 showed far more creativity. For example, within the framework of the project “27 Neighbourhoods” between the northern Croatian mountain village of Mrkopalj and the Netherlands. The performance artist Lieke Benders and the Dutch artists' “Hoge Fronten” decided to turn their project into a virtual life performance: For one day on YouTube you could watch the inhabitants of the village in a 360-degree video. You could observe them walking down the village street, playing the piano, gardening and talking. They had filmed themselves on mobile phone cameras.
Despite all the monotony, digital conferences, says Gitte Zschoch, have also brought advantages: “The gathering of people from all over the world can be organised more easily and in a much more climate-neutral way.” There is something else she has observed: The overcoming of hierarchies. Speaking openly is much easier in a digital conference. The managing director of EUNIC also reports that the time without events in the European cultural institutes can also be used to discuss fundamental questions: How can communities be formed in the digital space? Who is culture being made for? “Our work is often elitist,” admits Zschoch. “Often cultural institutes are located in well-off districts. This raises the question: Who actually goes there?”
The pandemic has brought groups to the fore that otherwise tend to be overshadowed: Parents, the elderly, care workers. This is also the case in foreign cultural work, says Zschoch. Through the pandemic we get a crash course in learning from one another. “We look to Japan, for example, to learn how language courses for older people work.”
The parade for the “Carnival in Rijeka” is still in the calendar for February 2021. Originally it was earmarked to end the year of being a cultural capital. Now it is certain that Rijeka, as well as the other Capital of Culture 2020, Galway in Ireland, can retain their title until April.
Translated by Jess Smee