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Marseille-Provence 2013, which cultural capital, for which Europe, whitin (...)

Marseille-Provence 2013, which cultural capital, for which Europe, whitin which globalisation ?

by Ferdinand Richard, director of A.M.I.


Strategically placed at the centre of the Eastern Mediterranean, but facing strong competition, Marseille seeks to capitalise on and harness its creative talents. To begin with, Marseille can count a considerable number of such creative talents : a product of the wide variety of artistic groups which the city can offer as well as a very respectable network for dissemination of the arts, even if this network is neither as rich nor as well-endowed as those existing in other major regional cities such as Lyon or Bordeaux. During decades of regular relations with other centres of the arts in the southern Mediterranean, particularly in the Arab countries, Marseille has also greatly increased its cultural exchanges of individual artists, teams or groups.
Built on a large number of different ethnic communities and also upon 26 centuries of history (an exceptionally long life-span for a city, even in Europe), its store of heritage, whether tangible or intangible, is a fountain of life where, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, a myriad of artists quench their thirst, whether they are established or nascent, either originating from the various sections of the city’s population or falling from other skies and attracted by this extraordinary situation. Even if their motives are sometimes little more than fantasy, their "artistic assimilation" is often both rapid and definitive. It is often said that the artistic career of an artist from Marseille who has “gone up to the capital" [i.e., Paris] continues to show characteristic and indelible signs that a discerning eye could rapidly detect.
It goes without saying that this has nothing to do with either the artist’s accent or their physical appearance.
It should however be noted that, after the 1990s, "the golden age of the Marseille movida", there followed a slowdown or maybe even a moderate decline in the arrival of European and non-European artists. Incidentally, in this context, one might easily imagine Marseille-Provence 2013 playing the role of a flow regulator.
Conventionally, Marseille’s industrial image is only seen as a negative aspect and hides its more attractive features. Its tag graffiti and its strong smells could be seen as the flip-side of that other, summery Provence : full of festivals, bathed in the scent of rosemary and the blue of the lavender fields. Two opposite worlds indeed…
Marseille, therefore, seeks to overcome this difficult starting point and, in this sense, becoming European Capital of Culture 2013 is a blessing that none of the city’s leaders can afford to disregard.
However, all this depends on the city’s ability to harness its creative talents : an effect which will not be attainable through simply local measures. Indeed, the more that the mechanism of globalisation gains ground, the more there emerges a gap between two possible directions in ideology and culture across the European continent.
The first option, which would seem self-evident, moves toward a rationalisation or a uniformity of "cultural consumption" and logically implies a concentration of power among an ever-decreasing number of global monopolies, giants of the "entertainment industry" who industrialise artistic production in a so-called "top-down" flow. Here – where we might also question the contradiction in terms between “creative” (a singular and experimental act which cannot be considered “industrial”) and “industry” (essentially, the act of duplication which, by definition, is not “creative”) – the concept of "creative industries" is deliberately interpreted in a particular way which is in principle divergent from “cultural diversity” (cf. the introduction in Anheier & Isar, 2010).
Works are mass(re-)produced, are highly entertaining, and have a short life-span and low production costs, making them accessible to the resources of the private mass market. The target is the world market. The source is concentrated in a few cultural “Golden Triangles” of an all-consuming attractiveness.
The second option proposes globalisation in the form of instantly multi-lateral, multi-level, multi-cultural production networks (therefore “bottom-up”) within which power is shared, equally or not, between different geographical extremes and varying weights. There is a kind of expanding profusion of initiatives leaving more room to the commercial balance of power than to global industrial planning. This balance of power is never definitive : everything about it is negotiable. Within it, one can also give priority to works of a more singular, lasting nature, which have a low turnover and a strong power of influence, clearly identifiable by their “territory” of origin, possibly expensive and unlikely to exist without public funding. Driven by specific centres of population, they “communicate” a shared, proclaimed identity. Targets appear throughout a fluctuating network of local markets, which are more or less interconnected. Every individual has a potential for creativity.
As usual, the inconstant reality is found somewhere between these two extremes. However, the two options influence cultural decision-making in radically different ways. Involontarily, the simple fact of raising one city or one group of towns or cities to the rank of "European Capital of Culture" will oblige it to place itself, consciously or unconsciously, in line with one of these two options.

Marseille-Provence 2013

Marseille-Provence, one of two cultural “capitals” for 2013, will obviously not escape this rule, although, in this respect, the city has not as yet expressly chosen either option in an unquestionable way. Yet it is a unique candidacy, which may in some respects represent a pause for thought in Europe’s “cultural journey” at the dawn of the new 2014/2020 planning period. Unique indeed, because of a novel combination of diverse factors : the large number of towns involved, the area’s geostrategic position in the Mediterranean, i.e., at the junction of Europe and its neighbouring zones ; and the long-term cultural structure of the area, etc. Will culture remain a vaguely identifiable object, floating above us, the reserve of certain specialists who are isolated in a "protosphere" ? Or will it undergo a radical “mainstreaming”, swarming with experts in all administrative services, in all departments of private enterprises, involving itself in public health, in education, transport, security and even in the search for social cohesion ? It is clear that, for the programme directors of the European Commission, what happens today through the creation and management of the Capitals of Culture serves as R & D (research and development), especially in view of the need for integration between Europe’s different regions.
We will not enter any critique here of the themes to be explored during Marseille-Provence 2013 . They are all the more legitimate since it was they that structured the decisive line of argument that led to the success of this candidacy. A visit to the website of "MP13" (as we shall choose to call it from now on) is enough to understand, in view of the thematic expectations of the backers (be they the European Commission or the French State), the tactical intelligence of Bernard Latarjet. The director of the candidacy and henceforth director in chief of the entire operation, he is a senior government official from the French Ministry of Culture, former adviser to Jack Lang and, after him, to François Mitterand and finally, previously, in charge of the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris. There is nothing wrong there, and yet there is a slight frustration regarding the project’s artistic daring, which is a little restricted by an almost "miserabilist" context that weighs down MP13 : Marseille is seen to be needy and therefore deserves to be chosen over Lyon, Bordeaux or Toulouse. This kind of "positive discrimination", barely defensible and of little instructive value, opens a door to all sorts of exaggeration and reflects an unflattering image that the city’s residents would willingly leave behind them, once and for all.
Nor is it useful to dwell on the destructive effects of the World Financial Crisis which has hit businesses very hard, both here and elsewhere. However, we should rapidly describe an entrepreneurial sociology which is seen, contrary to cities like Lyon or Lille, to have somehow become consolidated around businesses which are rather more family-based than industrial and whose international influence is based more on an older, trading-post style of commercial policy, rather than on global monopolies, international alliances or branch networks. The hopes of patronage have been significantly reduced in relation to the level of hopes at the time of the bid.
In terms of artistic programming, MP13 must make certain choices which will limit it financially and which, if Bernard Latarjet is not sufficiently supported, could well hit the most structural and the least communicative part of the bid, which was, however, the part that helped it to win. Let us discuss further certain specific predispositions which complicate its realisation. Belonging to both Provence and to Marseille, as I have done for 46 years now, I would first of all take the precaution of vigorously affirming that it is obviously not at all my intention to damage either the bid or its success, but to give it back all the dignity that it has the right to expect.

Uniqueness and atavism, overcoming problems

To ensure this dignity, the following situations have to be overcome : First of all, several internal political restrictions.
Examining our concentric geographical circles, the first indicates to us that, from Arles to La Ciotat, taking in Aix-en-Provence, "Marseille-Provence 2013" is primarily a partnership representing more than 130 municipal districts around Marseille, with a total resident population of about 1.5 million. A great team effort… Sadly, it is more and more affected by a major problem stemming from the political calendar : in 2014, barely a year after the event, each of these 130 towns will hold elections for their new municipal council, and each incumbent mayor will be counting on the dynamism of "MP13" to encourage the voters to re-elect him/her. This manipulative exploitation of the event could go so far as to severely call into question the notion of the "common pot" (or central fund), a symbol of the unity at the heart of the bid. Some mayors have even gone so far as to declare that their financial contribution will only be confirmed on condition that it will be exclusively used within their own territory, a condition impossible to manage for the visionary and demanding artistic planner that MP13 wishes to be.
Besides, we must also consider the “second circle” of municipal districts which are not integrated into the main bid but which belong to the regional community that also contributes financially to the " war effort". These municipal districts have therefore a legitimate expectation of a "return on investment", although they are geographically distant from the regional capital.
Finally, the less and less distant perspective of the operationality of the Euro-regions requires this bid to echo it. In view of the ongoing programmes, negotiations and alliances, this seems to be still no more than just a declaration of intent. Note that the Euro-region to which we belong – made up of PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur), Rhône-Alpes, Piedmont, Liguria and Aosta – intends to be the most advanced.
Another sizeable political restriction is currently being debated. This is the proposed reform of the local government authorities that should come into force from 2012 onwards, by which the responsibility for cultural matters could become either optional, obligatory or suppressed. This would cruelly deprive those municipalities concerned not only of an important supplement to the resources that they have the right to expect from the Regional Council and also from the administration of the Département, but also the indispensable “political advocacy” that these major local government authorities could generously provide. Even though, with the exception of Marseille and Aix, the towns do not really have the capacity to have external cultural relations (and what would a European Capital of Culture be without the dimension of international relations ?), one might have expected an effort in this respect from the Region or the Département Council at the international level.
But will these entities still exist after 2012 ? What direction will a collective bid involving more than 130 towns take if the levels of administration they share (the Département and the Region) disappear ; and if the new structures that replace them do not acquire sufficient responsibility for cultural affairs ?

The Currently Erratic French Cultural Policy

The building of the European Community calls into question more and more the older models of cultural policy, which are essentially Francophone, traditionally aiming for national prestige, influence, and Official Culture. Until now the prerogative of the state, cultural policy was rather expressed as a unique model, possibly reproducible at the local level, with every town seeking somehow to be another “little Paris”. And if we believe the framework letter proposed by Bernard Kouchner (France’s Minister for Foreign Affairs) dated 19th December 2009 – where no mention is even made of local authorities and even less of any decentralised cultural cooperation – cultural diplomacy still remains reserved for the State, a “diplomacy of influence” (sic), essentially aimed at strategic goals which have little to do with “Cultural Rights”. Let us not forget that the French Government is one of the most stubborn in not implementing the European directive concerning regional languages –an incoherent attitude, considering the polyglot nature of the population of Marseille.
More or less painfully but irreversibly, the transfer of cultural sovereignty from the European states to their local power structures is gradually finding its own limits. We believe that, within the Ministry of Culture itself, certain voices are making themselves heard, evoking a reversal of the principle of “Culture For All”, whose record is far from positive, to move towards the principle of a “Culture OF All”, encouraged in this by the recent ratification of the 2005 UNESCO Convention for Cultural Diversity. The national debate about culture, or rather its glaring absence, creates confusion in the governance of cultural affairs, a vacuum that some local government authorities are trying to fill, especially the larger towns and cities. It is a difficult period, but also an exciting one, because the various levels of cultural policy are coming into play at the moment, from the local to the pan-European, as shown by the recent public debate on this subject in the European Parliament on 23rd June 2010.
Therefore the French State will soon have to harmonize its international commitments, as expressed in the ratification of the Declaration of Cultural Diversity, with its more manipulative orientation as expressed in Mr. Kouchner’s framework letter. On the face of it, these two principles are incompatible and this ambiguity will resonate throughout the world of the arts, including the European Capital of Culture.

Two great challenges

In this context, if a French town is to become Capital of Culture of the EU, this requires great daring and opens the way to innumerable pitfalls. If the political elites have the vision and the courage, and if Mr. Latarjet understands the full extent of local know-how, then MP13, the “anti-Parisian” rebel, could succeed with dazzling cultural innovation, and could take advantage of the candidacy to launch a renovation of its cultural policy, to be extended well beyond 2013. Or else it might sink down to the lowest common denominator of average European cultural mediocrity, based from one end of the continent to the other on the same works, the same communication, and the same places and venues, and it may possibly suffer from Byzantine political struggles. In any case, it will have to ratify a certain number of seminal texts, especially the “Agenda 21 for Culture”, something which no other component part of MP13 has yet done with the exception of the City of Aubagne, which deserves our compliments for doing so.
Accepting one’s own diversity. Although it owes its survival and its pride to its dazzling indiscipline, occasionally mixed with indolence (which, besides, renders it so human), MP13 must finally accept its “internal immigration”. Let’s admit it, the greatest militants for Marseille’s cause are, of course, to be found among its innumerable immigrants, but also among “Parisians”, northerners, not necessarily the inhabitants of the most affluent quarters, sometimes audaciously un-French, who humbly adopt the cause, thereby becoming “more Marseillais than the Marseille people themselves”. Conversely, it is enough to read the self-satisfied, quasi-populist phrases, the “Pagnolesque” clichés, dished up recently by the national press, including (above all ?), the “progressive” press, in order to understand to what point Marseille suffers from a negative image in the minds of French people, especially where things of the mind are concerned.
It’s an old cliché, but also the reality, that the city of Marseille welcomes children from all over the world into its schools, with no hesitation concerning their skin-colour, their accent or their material wealth or lack of it. No one comments on your origins. We wait to see your work ! This redeeming principle ought also to be applied to the cultural field in general and to MP13 especially, provided that the bid includes everyone from the humblest to the most boastful of the Provencal people. The moral contract which should link MP13 to its inhabitants will operate within this delicate balance : trust artistic innovation, trust the people, because, in Marseille, the one should not prevail over the other. Breaking this contract could well be one of the principal causes of the failure of MP13, should that come about.
Going beyond one’s geostrategic heritage. Through its port, Marseille was the chief port of the French Colonial Empire. It always was and still is one of the main transit points of immigrating and emigrating cultures, especially within the “Mediterranean backyard”. Toulon, which could have been the other big city in the bid, had she not chosen to dissociate herself from it, is the home port of the French naval forces and their allies. Marseille recently welcomed a department of the World Bank and is also claiming a leading role in the Cultural Council of the Union for the Mediterranean as in other areas of influence. Therefore “heritage” amounts to pushing MP13 to adopt an inward-looking attitude of “self-segregation”, a certain policy of zoning, which some outspoken commentators would reduce to the purest neo-colonialism.
In fact, nobody in this city dares to question the sometimes stifling clause of a kind of obligatory “Mediterraneanism”, which would tend to suggest that there could be no justification for deploying the cultural expertise of MP13 outside the Mediterranean. Quite apart from the fact that the concept of a “dialogue among Mediterranean cultures” is above all a western idea (for the Arab world, the Mediterranean is not necessarily a place of convergence), it is obvious that others outside of MP13 have already forcefully claimed the “Mediterranean” label. Competition is fierce and we could hope that, intelligently, we might enhance the visibility of the latter in the world, well beyond the Mediterranean (but not without it), through certain specific skills and expertise that she bears better than others do. These include cultural activities, places of artistic creation, economic support for Culture, integration of contemporary creation with local heritage, gradual improvement of a formerly devastating cultural tourism, interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation, decentralised cultural cooperation etc. These are all areas of expertise or works-in-progress already recognised in MP13 on a global level, as much in Asia as in the Americas ; and which would also have the advantage of integrating a “Mediterranean sound” into a “world sound system”. MP13 could do it for itself but also for its neighbours, both European or North African, especially as, in some ways, it already does so, quite naturally.
There is another painful problem : the prevailing confusion/depression between the Cultural Council of the Union for the Mediterranean (chaired by Renaud Muselier, deputy Mayor of Marseille) – largely led by France and the Anna Lindh Foundation (which is an emanation of the “Barcelona Conventions” and the “armed wing” of the European Commission for dialogue between Mediterranean Cultures), the initiatives of the AECID (the Spanish International Cooperation Agency) – and all the other circles of power confuses the Mediterranean theatre even further.
Obviously, every player plays its pawns according to its own interests and, to my knowledge, the new services of Mrs. Ashton (High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) have not yet issued even the slightest element of doctrine which could allow us to envisage a minimum degree of cohesion, of clarity or of alignment. The image given by this diplomatic confusion is abysmal, and the candidature is suffering accordingly. Seen from Algiers, from Istanbul or from Ramallah, of what kind of Europe will MP13 be a Cultural Capital ?


In conclusion, the available evidence to date suggests that MP13 will be (or is already) in the eye of a hurricane whose unpredictable movements could either pass it by or do it serious harm. It is not entirely clear whether, when they brought the bid to the baptismal font, its creators had indeed measured the dangers ahead.
Yet this context is in itself a challenge, and we will certainly see if the intrinsic cultural resources and the life-blood of MP13 are capable of joining forces once more against misfortune. They are strong, deeply rooted, and not always visible, and they occasionally reside in the strata of population where we least expect them. For over 2,600 years, the people of Marseille have demonstrated an astonishing capacity for resistance - resistance that has been passive to varying degrees. Centres of population that have shown such a capacity for synthesis, and who therefore bear witness to very real richness of culture, are rare in Europe.
Furthermore, it will be necessary to give every one of them good reasons for identifying with this candidacy and making it their own. This is one of the political frameworks which still needs consolidation.
Finally, as has already been said, the timing of this candidacy makes it a full-scale test for the European Commission approach to culture at the dawn of the 2014-2020 planning period, especially regarding the capacity of local government authorities to at least partly assume the global policy issues. It is, of course, at the level of European institutions that the future equilibrium between local development, continental harmonisation, global fair trade and cultural diversity will be established. The member states of the EU, which until now have been leading players in making these choices, will have to deal as much with the growing autonomy of local power as with a European institutional reality that brings them all inexorably closer together.

Certainly, MP13 will experience the joys and the horrors of cultural renovation but, like a mirror, will reflect to its backers all the fundamental questions that such an event will not fail to raise.
Are they ready to answer them ?