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Ecologies are not Biotopes. Conference Report on the 23rd Annual ENCTAC Annual Conference, Lecce 2015

The 23rd ENCATC conference on the issue of “The Ecology of Culture: Community Engagement, Co-Creation, Cross-Fertilization” took place in the city of Lecce in South Italy in October 2015. It brought together international researchers, policy makers, culture professionals and students in what turned out to be a very fruitful, lively and by no means exclusively European discussion forum. Academics, however, still dominated the event, with only few artist and cultural entrepreneurs present. It is certainly a matter of communication and cultural as well as political infrastructures to encourage them to get more involved, rather than staying the passive object of research.

Figure: Entrance of the conference venue Palazzo Turrisi Palumbo. © Jelena Loeckner

The ENCATC network’s mission to bridge praxis knowledge and academic knowledge, was given plenty of room during the two and half-day conference, in the form of panels, research presentations, study trips, and workshops. A main question that ran like a red thread through most of the conference was, how to produce more impact and drive more tangible trade-offs. Cultural management should be “more aware of its social impact” (Pawel Stano, European Commission) and communicate research findings outside of the field more convincingly.

Hybrid careers in an evolving field 

The opening forum addressed the question of creating secure contexts for researchers, whose career paths increasingly wind in and out of academia and practice, while “still many people who teach in the field have not studied it”, as Robert Maloney (Boston University) pointed out. One paradox seems to be that while current developments in arts and culture call for hybrid careers and combined skills, most curricula, job descriptions etc. still follow old patterns. Academic journals, for instance, are often “still very restrictive in terms of disciplinary focus” (Fabio Donato, University of Ferrara). 

Another main obstacle both for creating secure contexts for young researchers and for making innovative research more visible is the issue of funding. Grants are still too few, but are hugely important especially in tackling contested hot irons in cultural policy, which are at the heart of many open conflicts in the world. One such scholar whose work would not have easily come to wide attention without the support of the ENCATC Cultural Policy Research Award award is Višnja Kišić. The grant facilitated her work on contested cultural heritage in the Balkans, where she laid open the colliding interpretations of cultural heritage sites that can be reawakened in moments of social change and crises. In the process, she uncovered local “practices of denial and selective or hidden information” as well as the contradictory and counterproductive policies of some key players with their emphasis on politically correct narratives, which only enforce already entrenched situations and hinder real research and development of strategies for lasting peace. For this kind of research in a challenging political environment the CPRA award “opened doors” and provided the necessary freedom to develop a methodology for “dealing with dissonant heritage in such a way as to foster reconciliation,” Kišić’s said. 

A post-economic model for the economy-averse sector?

The keynote held by John Holden was identical with the conference title, the ecology of culture, a concept that has gained popularity in the past few years. Holden brought to mind that cultural management has become more blurry, fluid and networked to the point where it produces and necessitates hybrid careers and expertise. It also necessitates new concepts for grasping the dramatic changes brought to it by technological and societal change. Referring to this concept in a recent study, Holden proposes a view of culture as ecology, an antidote to economical views that are already out-dated in the post-growth economical future.

Fig. 2: Impressions of the talks and presentations. @ ENCATC

Holden wants his idea understood as a “framing exercise” rather than as theoretical concept. The frame consists of three “spheres of culture” – publicly funded, commercial, and home-made – in which only the former two traditionally provide money for artists to reach audiences. The digital age has disrupted these relations deeply: “Today we have the means of cultural production, communication, and distribution in our hands,” he said. “Through the explosion of home-made culture, audiences, markets and the ways how audiences deal with cultural institutions have changed.” Thus, the technology-driven shifts resulted in culture getting much more connected, with people, artist and ideas shifting dynamically between them. At the same time, the guardian role, traditionally reserved to institutions of tangible and intangible heritage, is today claimed by individuals since everyone can be a curator and archivist. 

The benefits of this model are obvious, and were taken up positively by the following podium discussion: Ecology is explicitly non-hierarchical, focuses on coexistence and interdependence, and looks at culture as a dynamic process. If Holden takes the shortcomings of economic models to be equally obvious, concerning especially their suppositions about value (“It is mistaken to view culture as a market”), the alternative description of cultural value remained somewhat vague and it remained unclear how it could replace economic paradigms. Ecology certainly helps “replace dichotomous and linear, models from economy”, highlighting the non-monetary flows. If the goal of the model is to promote using “narrative as well as numbers”, the narrative and its elements have yet to be complemented with an appropriate set of analytical tools. What Holden calls for is that the “messiness” of the cultural ecology should be viewed as a condition of growth and emergence of innovations. But I was left wondering if intensifying an interdisciplinary dialogue between culture end economics would be called for – especially if we bear in mind the general lack of economical training of culture managers. Rather than offering ecology as alternative to economy it can serve as a way for culture to bring its disciplinary strengths to the current discourse on post-growth economical models, and highlight its societal impact by breeding new business models and new ways of doing business in a more future-oriented way. 

Tech-Up Your Cooperations

Day two of the conference consisted of the general assembly as well as the Research Session packed with insightful case studies and innovative topics. A special focus was placed on the common challenges in the Mediterranean countries. Attendees were also positively surprised by the quality of contributions coming from the Balkans and the Baltics. Further discussion on methodology seems needed, as a methodological gap is still palpable between researchers from cultural management and those from cultural policy. The micro- and macro-perspectives need to be brought into more dialogue. The field trips were another highlight.

Fig. 3: Seminario Sant' Anna, venue of the Research Session. @Jelena Loeckner

The trip to the ENEA technology and research centre of Brindisi provided us with rare insight into the cross-fertilization and collaboration between high-level scientific research and technological development, and how both cultural research and cultural management and policy can profit from it. 

At CETMA, Italy’s largest private research and technology centre, director Italo Spada demonstrated the growing importance of private partnerships with cultural institutions, especially of high-level media production for knowledge representation, pushing the boundaries of regular visitor experiences. We were taken on a virtual “flight” through the digitally reconstructed chapel of Assisi and were able to test virtual reality technologies that are currently sought after especially in museums and cultural heritage contexts. The possibility of 3D-printing is suitable for audience development and a new way of showing instead of telling in culture education, offering new ways of including blind visitors, enabling them to touch and explore objects.

Start of the study trips

Of special interest to cultural institutions is also the research capacity of the centre, which can take visitor research to a new level. Research director Sara Invitto presented CETMA’s studies on how humans interact and learn with new technology tools, combining semantic aspects, neuroscience and psychology. Such insight not only helps to evaluate user experiences but also to cater to the institution's self-image as not just entertainment providers, but as social players, critical lenses and innovation hubs. As cultural institutions have complex needs concerning media production, cooperations with tech centres as this can help them to become leaders in digital technology applications. The possibilities of the technologies are limited only by and should be oriented towards the institutions’ needs. The expectations towards the benefits of technology, however, still seem to be the rub as culture managers often still struggle with an acute assessment of their institution’s needs.

Fig. 4: Departure to the study trips. @ Jelena Loeckner

An inspiring hub, set to grow

The greatest take-away of the conference was this: The cultural sector has huge potential to become a leader in the development of applications for the new technologies as well as an innovation hub for thinking and developing new business models, and a new society. 

The conference organisation provided many opportunities for informal personal talks and get-togethers that are the most important part of any conference. These were especially needed after the many parallel sessions, the intense podium discussion and the trips. Attendees praised the surprisingly open and relaxed atmosphere of this conference (as of any other ENCATC event) not otherwise typical of people in culture and academia. 

If any criticism is to be levelled at the conference organization, it is that in spite of the focus on the possibilities of new media none of the hugely inspiring discussions during panels and presentations were made available live via stream, social media or online archive. Very few attendees used social media, which was not helped by the collapsing WIFI inside the massive walls of the palazzi. Lecce, on a final note, more than deserves the title of Italy’s best kept secret and indeed did not fail to surprise even the more seasoned travellers.

 
Further information on ENCATCs Annual Conferences can be found here. Contributions from the Annual Conference 2014 were publishes in our Arts Management Newsletter No. 121.
 
 
Author/Source: Author: Jelena Loeckner is a cultural manager and co-founder of NarraTool, an agency for storytelling conceptioning and consulting. Since 2008, she supports artists and cultural institutions to position themselves in Social Web, and offers solutions for storytelling in cultural marketing and branding.
Management Topic: Miscellaneous
Cultural Area: General
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Apr 07, 2016