'Europe, Europe' opening speech

Posted to Events, Exhibitions on 08.10.2014, 10:12 by Renate Thorbjørnsen with

Wednesday September 17th opened our major exhibition of young European contemporary art, 'Europe, Europe'. The exhibition was officially opened by the director of Fritt Ord Foundation, Knut Olav Åmås. Read his opening speech.

Excellences. Artists. Dear ladies and gentlemen, fellow Europeans - and Non-Europeans.

Winston Churchill once said: 

“We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and...wherever they go in this wide domain...will truly feel, ‘Here I am at home.”

The underlying, general topic of this exhibition - "Europe, Europe" - is the migration and mobility of artists living in Europe, as they experience it, in eight important European cities - but also moving freely across Europe.

And this theme could be seen within the framework of Europe's cultural politics and identities: What are the political preconditions for the migration and the mobility, and what are the possible consequences for single human beings, for whom politics exists in the first place? Yes, politics exists for people, not the other way around.

If there is something that could be called European cultural politics, it too often tends to be reduced into one of two tendencies:

Either a somewhat too narrow politics of the creative industries, pretty instrumental in scope and visions - or an even more instrumental promotion and support of official EU politics.

European politics is right now in the deepest conceivable need of more attention, political priority and public and private resources - towards the cultural dimensions and preconditions for an even more dynamic and free European cooperation.

Why? Well, the extended financial crisis over the last six years has struck several countries in Europe very hard, not least in Southern Europe. This has alarmed economists and politicians alike. But the field of arts and culture has not seen a similar urgency of action. Quite on the contrary, in fact.

Instead, more than one European country during the last few years have closed down their ministries of culture, and several other countries have reduced their state budgets for culture severely - with Norway as one very happy exception.

Reduced state budgets does not, however, necessarily mean death to culture. It might mean more vitality, by provocation, so to speak. We have seen many examples of this in European history. But the result might of course also be the opposite - cultural poverty and visual illiteracy. I´m proud that a great number of the important private foundations of Europe support so many valuable art projects, publications and initiatives every year, this is also the situation in the Fritt Ord Foundation where I recently started as the director.

There exists perhaps no such entity as a European cultural politics - only national cultural politics and then some loose collaborative projects either supported by the EU or funded in more creative ways. More and more cultural and artistic projects do have an international character, but many more are still mainly perceived within the national discourses. 

Luckily, there are many exceptions that show how cultural politics in Europe develops within the border of other processes, for example the development of the trade and finance exchanges and the Bologna process which has transformed arts educations.

The result is artists that move around, and art that has the character of crossing borders and having so many sources of influence. This is not a trivial fact. It does something to what is seen and described in art, and the ways in which it can be expressed too.

Europe develops continuously. Tomorrow we will know if Europe will be enriched with yet another independent country, Scotland. We already witness that the possibility - or danger - that the result will be a dissolution of the United Kingdom, for good or bad inspires citizens of other strong regions in Europe to take to the streets - and strenghten their own demands for independence.

These are indeed exciting - and also deeply troubling - horizons. I wonder whether Europe in the present situation really has the capacity to deal with such processes in the middle of the very deeprooted problems that our part of the world already has to deal with.

And I haven´t yet mentioned Russia´s very dangerous aggressions and the growing fascism in more than one European country. Freedom of thought and expression as a fundamental human right is under very severe pressure. The situation is desperate for many first class Eastern European journalists and editors, I observe from my position in the Fritt Ord Foundation.

Political scientist Kenneth Minogue once wrote:

“Europeans have sometimes been beguiled by a despotism that comes concealed in the seductive form of an ideal – as it did in the cases of Hitler and Stalin. This fact may remind us that the possibility of despotism is remote neither in space nor in time.” 

Europe is not one, Europe is many, a multitude, a diversity consisting of 730 million people, 28 countries only within the borders of the European union. and 16 more outside it.

It strikes me how multifaceted and full of contrasts Europe is - not only from country to country, but from region to region within the countries. The development and evolution of the Union has in some ways strengthened the regions and the regional identities - and also the great diversity of European languages. Multiple identities are indeed possible - you can be both Scottish, British and European at the same time...

Multitude. Diversity. These words sound a bit like a string of clichees as soon they leave my mouth. But they are not. They are very modest expressions of a living reality, of Europe in September 2014, I insist.

This exhibition - "Europe, Europe" - shows exactly that, and the project will develop and continue as it will be moving through Europe. The present version of the exhibition is only the first, it will change when moving around - as people do, like we all do. As ideas always do. The organic curatorial model seems very appropriate.

Some of us - but not all - are privileged to travel freely as never before in world history - because we can afford it and because there is an infrastructure and a legal framework for moving more or less freely. I travel a lot around Europe, and always carry my passport. I seldom need it.

Artists and intellectuals are especially free. They and their ideas move and should move more or less freely across borders. They fully enjoy the privilege of crossing borders many places in Europe, almost without noticing it. The artists in the exhibition "Europe, Europe" are very mobile, many of them live other places than where they grew up, and they call more than one city their "home".

But many, many Europeans and immigrants are also refused mobility. Refused to come into what is sometimes called Fortress Europe - or not allowed to move around in a flexible way. I sincerely hope this arts project will produce confrontational reflection on the topic of who are excluded, and the consequences of this exclusion.

Another question this exhibition raises, at least in my mind, is the following: Does there exist something that could be called a common public sphere in Europe? If yes, where is it and what is its substance? If not, should there be such a sphere, and how could it be created?

There are relatively few "EU journalists" in Brussels in the same way there are White House correspondents in Washington. Fewer media than ever cover Brussels, and 66 per cent of them have only one person accredited.

Some of you might recall a shortlived newspaper entitled The European - the brand new all-European paper that failed after not too many editions some time during the 1990s. It was too generic, it didn´t reflect Europe in all its diversity.

Here in Norway we see the Eurovision Song Contest as a particular interesting European cultural project. It is indeed a very fascinating music contest.

But both of these projects represent only a rather thin layer of common mentality.

The core of Europe cannot be excavated from such sources.

The core of Europe is on the contrary the lack of a core. Europe can be defined only by visualizing a great number of the differences, conflicts and contrasts that are to be found. 

This exhibition, and the project it will develop into by moving around - and along the way changing contents - is one such a visualization of Europe. It could be called "the art of difference" - or even better "the art of differences".

These artists are important parts of the future of Europe. But I would like to make a critical point: I hope that the future of these artists is not that that they have to take part in exhibitions like this in institutions like this without getting paid for it. I hope that is not the future of cultural Europe...

By the way: I do not imply that Europeans are not interested in quality journalism about Europe.

There exist brilliant European web sites such as Eurozine and Café Babel, engaging tens of thousands of people every day. These projects are successes because they grow from below, from physical locations, from creative centres in towns and cities, not from some projected or imagined centre - and they are not created in some Brussels office.

I think the same characteristics are shared by this project, "Europe, Europe", and will continue to do as it moves along around Europe.

People are not so much interested in what happens in Brussels per se - but very engaged in what are the consequences of European politics in the many different countries and regions, and on the other hand what is happening among ordinary people around Europe that in turn could influence the decisions taken in Brussels, Strasbourg, the Hague and elsewhere.

To understand Europe is a very difficult task - and a deeply fascinating and rewarding one too.

Let me repeat Winston Churchill´s words to conclude my speech:

“We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and...wherever they go in this wide domain...will truly feel, ‘Here I am at home.”

The present exhibition - "Europe, Europe" -  is a project that could help us as individuals along this way, taking part in the critical and selfcritical endeavour of understanding. Not necessarily strengthening and confirming identities, but perhaps questioning and discussing them.

Therefore it is with great honour - and high expectations - that I declare this important exhibition open.

Knut Olav Åmås
Director of Fritt Ord Foundation

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