European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Brussels 2000

Poster of Brussels 2000

Source: Spyros Mercouris, 20 years of history exhibition in Patras 2006


Overcoming resistance of a fragmented city

Brussels had been marked for a long time and really until 2000 when it became a European Cultural Capital City by contradictions typical of the fragmented city (Andre Loeckx). There were streets with literally a high life on one side while just across the street and around the next corner every further house and narrow pavement was steeped in horrific poverty. The fragmentation was intensified by many municipalities (18) all with their own agenda. They could not really work together with tension between the Flemish and French speaking populations rising steadily. These two cultures along with their respective institutions were more at odds with one another than willing to speak with the other side.

When Bob Palmer became artistic director of Brussels 2000, he brought with him all the experiences he had made in a similar position when Glasgow as European Capital of Culture in 1990. At that time Bob Palmer enjoyed two important prerequisites for a successful implementation: one, a huge budget had been made available for artistic and cultural actions to revamp especially the inner city of Glasgow e.g. converting a church into a cultural centre, and two, most crucial for any artistic director if he is to be able to act independently and consider only the quality of artistic and cultural actions, for that he had the full backing of the mayor. Whether or not he could do it again in Brussels was an open question when he started out. However, he had one advantage since many others had already attempted and failed, thus everyone was aware that if Brussels was to succeed and all the more so with many of the key institutions of the European Union (of European Commission, European Parliament, Committee of Regions etc.) in that city, they had to bring their act together.

Palmer's concept was to use the available budget to go forward in a strategic way, in order to convey a cultural notion of urban renewal. This had been a part of the Glasgow strategy he had adopted already in 1990, namely to make new uses of old places possible. A prime example was a church which became a public cultural centre and thereby attracted people back into the centre of the city which had been abandoned till then. In Brussels he linked youth action and graffiti with special derelict areas and thus brought life to areas which had been neglected until then.

Above all Bob Palmer made possible the impossible, namely to find a consensus between the two major linguistic and culturally distinct communities. With both he developed jointly ideas on how to use again the arts and culture in general for urban renewal projects. Youth centres were created in areas which were ruled till then only by poverty and crime.

The rich architectural history in Brussels

Moreover, once houses were restored, they started to show the rich architectural tradition in Brussels. To make sure as well that people got to know this aspect of the city, Brussels 2000 trained guides to conduct walks through neighbourhoods which had not as of yet been discovered. Often up to 150 people would join such walks to discover parts they would have otherwise never visited or taken notice of.

Besides variations there is a predominant Jugendstil


View of the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels


The Zinneke Parade

Above all Brussels became united around the idea of a special parade which has continued since then as a traditional event taking place every year at the same time. The Zinneke Parade was born in 2000 out of the programme "Brussels, European Capital of Culture". Today, the Parade is a biennial event that has become part of the Brusssels landscape and has helped to create a new cultural, urban and popular space. The Zinneke event fits in seamlessly with the urban renewal policy of the Brussels Capital Region.

The Zinneke Parade applies a special organisational principle. Through the community work in the districts and municipalities, together with the cultural centres, theatres, youth centres, community centres and all kinds of associations, it is a catalyst for the creative dynamism of the people of Brussels. A particular feature of the parade is that community groups must find a partner for each event, promoting cooperation between communities.

The parade draws out the ridiculous parts of everyone and in so doing makes the daily life be accepted. Brussels is daily a real testing ground as to what can be considered to be 'normal'?


Those in Brussels” - Eurocrats and European institutions

The life of a Eurocrat differs very much from a normal train or bus driver, for they do live in a 'golden cage'. To enter and to exit a special code must be known. Otherwise no access to these corridors of power!

Entrance corridor of EU Commission building Education and Culture


Also the Eurocrats show to have a special movement. During the week they are intensively busy with all kinds of meetings, constant work and more often hidden behind cyber screens then be seen in the streets. However, on the weekend they tend to flee the city. It brings about an odd rhythm with crowded streets during the week and an emptiness over the weekend. Those left behind do not know how to cope with this constant cold-hot-cold bath.

Consequently the perception of the city till 2000 has been at best as being something weird and not at all capable of overcoming the huge gap between the Eurocrats and the local population. Most of the local population commutes daily by train into the city, and once they get off at one of the three main train stations - Gare de Nord, Gare Centrale and Gare Midi - they rush on to catch a bus or take the metro, in order to reach their final destination wherever they have found work at extremely low salaries in highly exploitative work places.


Passing through Gare Centrale

After 2000 it seems that the city started to learn how to come to terms with its different functions and still provide room for discussions and participation based on the notion ‘you never know for whom else such openings are good for’.

Hence it was an interesting process to watch how Bob Palmer coming from Glasgow managed in his own quiet, but highly innovative way to provide with a new cultural orientation. His key emphasis had been wisely on making use culture to resolve first of all conflicts and then still make space for everyone to express their own ideas. This helped reverse the usual trend towards the obliteration of identities due to the Belgium past and European presence. Unlike many others who ignored the source of much grievance being the negation of identity, he realized Brussels could not continue in the same way as before.

Naturally that problem prevailed as long as there was no political resolve to this question. As in Glasgow, it was essential for Bob Palmer to get the political support of the mayor; equally in Brussels, he did succeed in getting all political groups from both communities behind his efforts to make positive use of culture. In so doing he affirmed the very basic idea of Melina Mercouri when she proposed the idea of a European Capital of Culture to happen every year. For she meant as Bob Palmer interpreted it in a practical way to perceive culture first of all as a way and indeed an art to bring together people and in particular those who otherwise would not speak with each other.

Such a cultural strategy works only if able to provide space(s) without occupying it oneself – something Michel Foucault said is the prerequisite for any philosophical discourse. Only then have people a chance to perceive through culture a chance to overcome structural dispositions. That was demonstrated, for instance, when someone like Peter Sloterdijk spoke on a public square about the link between philosophy and theology. Insofar as people resort no longer to completely negative outlooks to justify their stand-offs towards the others, then they give the others a chance to enter a fruitful dialogue. This meant in Brussels all the more for bridges of communication were scarce and few in particular between the Flemish and the French communities. Brussels 2000 made a difference and ensured that the city started to understand how important it is to give significant spaces to others so that they can express real differences.

Translated into culture and cultural actions, Bob Palmer was of the opinion that projects to be selected for Brussels 2000 should work across borders and energize people. In the combination of the two, namely giving space but also working across borders, new energies made Brussels become a vibrant city. Above all he succeeded insofar as all municipalities were able to agree on a common working program for the benefit of the city as a whole.




Official report by European Commission about Brussels 2000

"The “Brussels 2000” project encompasses more than 350 artistic and educational events. The central theme of these events is The city and the programme underlines the importance of the collective memory of the city in relation to its past and a shared vision of the future.

Brussels 2000 will open on 25 February with the exhibition "The house of nine cities", which will bring together nine artists from these cities and will be set up in the premises of the European Parliament. Ms. Reding will be patron of this opening exhibition.

Unusual encounters between artists and the population will be organised in public places: singing parking meters, photography sessions at bus stops; literary structures on pavements, choreography on train station platforms etc. The programme will include mpermiere in all fields of the arts: the choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker will be staging her own dance works and those of her pupils; Zinneke Parade, a people's parade, will involve a large number of local groups. The musical events will include an Olivier Messiaen retrospective, a celebration of the 75th birthday of Pierre Boulez and several concerts given by the City of Birmingham Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle as part of the Festival of Flanders.

The Walk/About/stalk project is an artistic presentation in public places, designed and created by two young dancers, two young architects and two young musicians. This initiative will be re-run in the eight other Cities of Culture of the year 2000."




For more information about projects realized by Brussels 2000, and this in combination with the other eight cities, see the report "European Cities of Culture for the Year 2000" by Giannalia Cogliandro

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