By Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson
The interdependence between culture and municipalism begins with the cultural and creative dimensions of municipalist movement-making, and leads on to the creation and consolidation of a new political culture forged in the institutional practices of municipalism, then eventually to the kinds of cultural policies proposed by the municipalist paradigm. This interdependence can also bring light to the possible darker sides of underpower and localism.
Municipalism understands culture as far broader than the traditional cultural institutions of municipal authorities, going far beyond ‘the arts’. It sees culture as the result of the social connections of the city ecology and therefore of the diversity of realities. Cultural policies must therefore reflect the multiplicity of culture-creating actors and the diversity of grassroots, civic and social forms of making culture. The foundation of the municipalist approach to culture is cultural democracy and the cultural commons. These four short sparks that follow are a snapshot of the ways in which new municipalism and new culture together fire new processes and realities to transform a lived new democracy:
- MOVEMENT MAKING = Culture + Critical Thinking + Activism. Yellow Duck Movement, Belgrade + Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca and the Movimientos de Liberación Gráfica, Barcelona
- NEW CULTURE OF NEW POLITICS = Culture + Feminisation + Community Cambiano Messina dal Basso (CMdB), Messina
- NEW CULTURAL POLICIES = Decentralisation + Commons + Laboratories. Cultura Viva, Barcelona + ZEMOS98, Seville + 7 ideas
- NEW CITIZENSHIP = Culture + Commoning + Confederation. We Are Here, Amsterdam + No.11 Arts, Birmingham + a poem
1. Culture + critical thinking + activism = MOVEMENT MAKING
Across Europe and across the world cities, where most people now live, are not only expanding but are also displacing existing communities and historic civic structures as the inevitable ‘price of progress’. The movements of new municipalism have grown from civic and collective activism to resist and reclaim. The fire of this activism has been fuelled by playful and provocative creative and cultural work that has sparked people’s imaginations and critical thought. It has been the confluence of social movements, civil society organisations, citizens platforms and cultural groups together that has forged the potential for lasting political change.
Cultural acts and processes have been a core part of political expression, protest and resistance from the year dot with artists acting as dissenters and dissidents. Physical and visual symbolism in civic and political protest has power, it engages and motivates the crowd and attracts media attention, often globally. From the raised fist to taking a knee, graffiti from ancient times through street art and on to Banksy and JR, Rosa Parks standing up by sitting down on a Montgomery bus, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, the Gay Pride flag, umbrellas in Hong Kong, sunflowers in Taiwan, pink knitted pussy hats in Washington….
New democracies depend on a vibrant civil society which engages citizens to challenge and change their community. It is therefore necessary to know the tactics and strategies groups, campaigners, activists and organisers can work with to raise awareness, move people, change their views, and get them engaged. The past decade has witnessed a surge in cultural and artistic activism. But is this tactic useful in movement building, or are there better ways to work?
The Nordic Experiment (Fritt Ord) is an evidence-based, empirical study of the variable impact of creative forms of activism on a public audience in terms of ideas, ideals and actions. Working with partners: ActionAid, RAPolitics and Roskilde University in Danemark, et le Center for Artistic Activism in New York, researchers staged the first ever public experiment of the comparative efficacy and of cultural activism versus more conventional forms of activist interventions.
And guess what – in every quantitative measure the creative approach is more successful than a conventional activist one. And it has a qualitative impact on how people think and feel. People find conventional activists predictable and annoying but creative forms of activism make people curious and more affected; and can – productively – disturb and unsettle. The full report by the Fritt Ord Nordic Experiment can be found here.
So the work of creative and cultural activists in movement making has a real impact. Not only in inspiration and active participation but also in reflection, critical thinking and changing mindsets for longer-term shifts towards new realities. Cultural forms, acts, images and processes have been a core element of political expression, protest and resistance from the outset in municipalism. They have been a powerful tool in movement making and shaping the expression of municipalism, but these cultural processes also have power in maintaining the spirit of the movements.
Manifestations Yellow Duck, Belgrade
Ne da(vi)mo Beograd – We won’t let Belgrade d(r)own
“A lot of people liked the duck as a symbol as ‘duck’ has a multi-layered meaning. Sometimes it is ridiculous how they [the police] are bothered by the duck. It looks like they are afraid they will get a direct order to arrest it” Radomir Lazovic, Yellow Duck protester, 2015
The serbian intiative ‘Nedavimobeograd-Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own’’ was formed in 2014 and changed the way citizens think about transparency and their role in relation to urban development projects. It was triggered by a controversial development project that would transform Belgrade’s waterfront into skyscraper luxury apartments and five star hotels. The plan was the biggest development in Serbia’s history. It was a familiar tale of top-down regeneration ‘revitalising’ a ‘run down’ area of the city with gentrification, demolition, displacement and social cleansing.
The €3.5 billion development would be funded by Emirati petrodollars. It also emerged that the project would be 68% owned by the developer as a private actor capitalising on public resources. Details of the multi-billion-dollar project were not made public, there was no consultation and the demolition took place at night The project had been classified as ‘of national significance’ so that it could bypass bureaucratic hurdles, it was taking place behind closed doors.
Opposition and dissent began to grow. It started with the conventional steps: filing official complaints about changes to the urban development plans and requesting public hearings. More than 2,000 complaints were filed but all of them were rejected. The activists then got creative, they organised small performances, such as singing at the public hearing of the plan. Then came the first protest with the big Yellow Duck. A yellow duck the size of a car became the symbol and rallying call for action – funny, friendly and absurd, it sent powerful, compelling and sustained political messages. It was subversive and concealed subtle messages, codes and metaphors and counter-narratives to the status quo. Yellow duck is a symbol of civil resistance and of ongoing fraud and corruption and in Serbian ‘duck’ also means ‘dick’.
Small-scale actions were followed by mass protests in 2015 and at the beginning of 2016 the watershed moment followed the demolition, when citizens showed up in great numbers to protest, demanding resignations and laying criminal responsibility at the door of officials. In the following months, ten major protests took place, each one bigger than the last. At the height of the protests, there were 20,000 people on the streets of Belgrade – the biggest civic protests since those that toppled Slobodan Milošević in 2000.
From the beginning, the initiative included direct actions and mass protests, using legal challenges to the development, as well as iconic symbolism and intense media campaigns. The development which contravenes Serbian legislation is still underway, but the protest has nevertheless injected a new sense of hope onto the streets of Belgrade. It has showed the strength of its citizens willing and ready to take back control of their city, their lives and their future. It has changed mindsets and stirred critical thought and action. Ever since, a growing number of Belgradians have been demanding that citizens be consulted and heard on major urban development projects. Crowds have taken to the street with the famous duck logo to challenge the process of how citizens are left out in major investment and development schemes.
Gradually the Yellow Duck movement has become an example to others, of how local communities lose their grip on their neighborhoods to institutions that hold financial power over them, and how they can creatively reclaim power. Yellow Duck has subsequently been taken up in many other places around the world, most prominently in Brazil, China and Russia.