Borås is the city of Pinocchio, Jims Dine’s huge work, 9 meters high and made of bronze, and several other significant sculptures. It’s a part of quite big efforts within the cultural field in the city. I don’t know if it’s a sign of prosperity, but at least attraction. 

Pinocchio, Jim Dine

I just visited The Nordic Urban Laboratory, a conference in Borås and Gothenburg, in company with my colleague Jonna. City planners, researchers, community organizers and others take a look at alternative strategies in urban development. The main purpose is to develop a toolkit which can support municipalities and regions in their production of their own strategies. It’s overall holistic views, connecting cultural resources to certain knowledge bases.

The gathering is on high level: elaborated program, important speakers and well-produced arrangement – high class projectors, perfect microphones and rooms with delicate ventilation. (But when the slides are too perfect, I don’t really believe the speakers. I suspect they’re hiding something in the content, a lack or a crack. It’s the same feeling as when I recognize a bottle of wine with a too decorated label – is the wine missing something?)

The first two days of the conference is located at the Textile Fashion Center, rooted in the deep tradition of manufacturing and retailing of textile in the area of Borås. It’s crowded, I don’t know how many visitors, I’m sure it’s more than a hundred, and the audience is more international than I expected.

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Franco Bianchini, one of the main speakers, is specialist on cultural planning, and he delivers a brief history of the field from 1988 until today. We are dealing with times of continuous change – e.g. powerful globalization, increasing hybridity, heavy conflicts, and breakdowns of social values. It’s a comprehensive presentation, and the history is told with a refreshing distance.

One of the most cherished and effective methods used in cultural planning processes is mapping. Magnus Fredricson presents a really detailed mapping work in the Skaraborg region. Spots are loaded with information on a GIS-map, the map is run through an application, and the results are visualized in several diagrams. (It gives me a feeling of positivism, not too far from the architect’s Space Syntax.)

Bettina Lamm, associate professor and landscape architect, gives a view on Urban Play, a temporary cultural intervention in the public space of Søndre Havn, Køge, Denmark. Art, architecture and play has brought life into the empty harbor area.

It’s a huge difference between the projects presented by Fredricson and Lamm. The serious orientation of the mapping is really contrasting the poetic, playful attitude in Søndre Havn. Different goals, different methods and different results. The crucial question is obvious in both cases – what happened afterwards? What did the mapping lead to, substantially? What did the temporary project leave behind – except memories and documentation?

Under the headline Sustainability speaks Kenneth A Balfelt, Helena Bjarnegård and Cecilia Liljedahl. Kenneth, a Danish artist, presents a project in Folkets park, Nørrebro, Copenhagen, where residents and users have been integrated in the creation and running of the process. (A small but interesting detail is the darkness in the park. Some parts are actually left without light – marijuana smokers, dealers and lovers need the shadow, I guess…)

Folkets park, Copenhagen

Helena presents Frihamnen in Gothenburg, an old harbor area, close to the city center; the most well-known piece in the project is probably the sauna, made by the Berlin-based architects of Raumlabor.

Sauna, Raumlabor

Cecilia shows some green art projects; the most visually salient project is a bamboo work by the Japanese artist Tetsunori Kawana, which will be raised in the beginning of the summer 2016.

 Tetsunori Kawana

The section about Art, contains three sessions. Ari Marteinsson is part of the Danish Bureau Detours, an organization with special interest in creating social environments in public space. Invisible Playground is a German group focused on games to explore and understand the city.

Kerstin Bergendal is well known for her social and dialogue-based projects, always with a high focus on the place and the public space. Her most recognized project is probably PARK LEK, today almost considered as a model or prototype.     

Every speech is an aspect of the interaction between local/societal, method/result, temporary/permanent, time-consuming/”jajamensan”-mentality and theorists/practicians.

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It’s raining in Gothenburg when I leave the conference. It’s two hours until the train departures and I decide to take a walk through the central parks and continue to Göteborgs konsthall. A great exhibition with Magnus Bärtås is on display. The rain increases and I have to take shelter at the library to finish this text.

The conference has raised several questions in my mind:

First, the popular method mapping. What should be mapped? Are the bad experiences, the conflicts, the tensions included in the mapping? In theory, every planner dedicated to the method would say yes. But when it comes to reality… And what happens to the results after the mapping process? How do we implement strategies? I’ve heard of so many mapping projects, but seen so little brave interventions…

Second, the ubiquitous tool dialogue. What is a dialogue? At first glance it has to do with mutual understanding and adding of new perspectives etc. But in reality – dialogue is also misunderstanding, indirectness, guessing, implicit contexts, friction, reading between the lines, disruptions, gestures… Without the total meaning of dialogue, the tool is, according to me, too romantic, maybe misleading, or even impossible to use.

Third, the tradition of gentrification. Planners talk about the grass-root perspective, their interest in ‘common people’. But at the same time, it’s obvious that quite a lot of the projects are ending up in gentrification – the old industrial area is transformed to an attractive hub for more or less wealthy people connected to businesses of information, technology, arts, brewery, education… The dirty, faded dwelling area, which used to house unemployed or in other ways marginalized people, gets shaped up, cultivated, attractive and – expensive…

Fourth, the issue of competence. Which competences are needed for a good cultural planning process? I’m sure, almost every municipality or region lacks knowledge within their organizations. I’ve heard so many enthusiasts, but do they have the knowledge? A planning process needs both overview and specialists, and I’m sure a lot of the projects need to step up, to go beyond the idealistic introvert reflections and backslapping. It’s time to do our homework. 

Fifth, the role of the traditional institutions Public run libraries, art galleries, cultural heritage organizations and museums have been important for the cultural infrastructure during the last century. But at the same time it’s obvious that many of them are not flexible enough, regarding to for example funding, staff and buildings. Rigid artistic directors without capacity (or interest) even to listen to the competence of their staff… no, they will never be able to listen to the voices of the surrounding society and the audience, they will never be able to suck up the new movements. The temporary is the new permanent. We’re in a state of permanent transition where everything is fluent and floating. Believe me, empty echoing institutions trying to express and consolidate their power through monologues are most probably not a creative force in the negotiating about the fluid symbolic universe of the future.  

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The creative city is dead. To be honest, it never was born, at least outside imagination. Nationalism, that once at least tried to keep people together, walks around like a wounded animal. And a wounded animal is dangerous. The struggle between stability and change isn’t over; all that is solid melts into air? What we need is not to build a common, monolithic history, but a discussion of the common futures, the new destinations.

This pages was updated 2016-04-09 by Fredrik Sandblad.