European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

A first response to the Final Report

Linz 2009 and Ars Electronica

Linz '09 had to deal with the past of the city while the future was anticipated already a long time ago by Ars Electronicas. This media center enjoys a high reputation world wide. It presents artistic works linked to new media and modern communication technologies.

Unfortunately Linz '09 did not make really use of Ars Electronica.

That contradiction became apparent in the official programme of Linz '09 insofar both a troublesome past nor the modern future were not integrated into the official programme. Rather the past was dealt with before the start of the official year while Ars Electronica was used more as a means to communicate with the world rather than deal directly with all its potentialities as a new museum of the electronic and Internet age.


The Programme and related issues

Problems with the Free Art Scene

The free art scene did not really get along with Martin Heller, artistic director and Ulrich Fuchs, the assistant director. There was a lot of criticism made for not having included in the year's programme enough projects implemented by small artistic groups. The Free Art Scene wished to convey a different sense for the arts and culture. much more based on spontaneity and on learning out of experience made along the way.

A lot was said in that Cultural Development Plan about the potential role of culture in a city like Linz. The city had drafted it in 2000. It included sending artists to international exhibitions, festivals, conferences not only as ambassadors of Linz but also to let them learn from others new forms of expression. It was one way to become innovative.

Along those lines Ars Electronic had become already a trend setter. It meant the free art scene had accumulated by 2006-2009 substantial experiences and was poised to make a contribution to that special year. The offer was never really honoured or taken up. It is never easy to deal with such an opposition but one factor may have contributed to a lack of dialogue. The free art scene does not conceive of itself as being mere locals in favour of a special brand of the arts e.g. brass bands playing folk music. Rather the Free Art Scene expresses a need for spaces to experiment in order to go beyond the usual cynical view that neither this nor that will work while everything is just 'Fad' - boring.

As Thomas Bernard would put it in Austria there are usually only two possibilities: to enter the business world and adapt to what others have become already, namely boring people without any ethical inspiration to sustain their intellectual and cultural life, or else to commit suicide. To find an alternative to the business as usual was, therefore, nearly impossible.

The peculiarity of a cultural opposition has to be handled with care. It can be doubted that Martin Heller and Ulrich Fuchs as outsiders to the scene really understood this deeper longing for freedom from a most oppressive atmosphere.

Thus a major point of contention between the organisers of Linz '09 and the off-scene has been how many artistic projects were realized in conjunction with the free art scene. Always the non established artists want to retain a degree of spontaneity and therefore cannot be planned in the same way as other events. Their resources but also scope and dispositions differ from an opera house or cultural centre which can maintain by itself a programme over a certain period of time. Yet without them there is missing an authenticity and would leave culture as expression of freedom short of any true artistic aspiration.

It is said that Linz did host events where everyone, artists and citizens joined in to create music together as if to revive the ideas of John Cage. Thus it all depends how those numerous projects went and who participated in them. The Final Report claims there were realised numerous such projects. (1)

Selection of Projects

It seems despite the care taken to select projects ahead in time so that they can be prepared really well, choices were made on the basis of a personal inclination by the artistic director. No where is made clear that his choices were based on a worked out and therefore coherent concept understandable to all.

Instead it appears as if the driving force behind the selection seemed to have been much more a commercial and tourist objective insofar as every day had at least one event. Günter Grass called such a cultural programme a hotel bed filling exercise which leaves little time and space to artists. The latter require time during which they do nothing in order to recuperate. The same applies to culture as a whole.  Moreover to become really creative in the process a substantial programme expresses itself fore mostly by setting some clear constraints e.g. everything can be expressed during that week but it must be made of wood.


The programme seems to lack above all a sense of continuity or of timing as if independent from the seasons, historical days e.g. August 21 and the crushing of the Prague spring. There is also missing a sense that some definite idea is used to work through all events in order to give them a structure and a cohesive form. This is a surprising outcome in a negative sense for several reasons.

Linz promised to approach the year from a most interesting and very specific angle. To qualify for the designation, the city had undertaken in 2000 the task of bringing about over a two year period a 'cultural development plan'. This included a very comprehensive approach to the question what role should culture play in future in the city. The development of the Plan allowed the interaction of the entire city with the proposals being worked out first by experts and then given to political representatives for approval before being handed back to a general assembly of the entire city.

The Cultural Development Plan contains some very good ideas e.g. how to link social with cultural work by transforming a passive pensioner into an active person doing his or her own photo exhibition. Being comprehensive and far sighted, it could have been easily adopted by Linz '09 as a leading model on how to approach the difficult task of cultural planning and programming for such a year.

Repeatedly Bob Palmer has stressed this point that the programme for one year must be thoroughly thought through and capable of being implemented. There are so many things which can go wrong e.g. funding not secured, change of artistic director, political interventions, mega events for the sake of visibility etc.

Interestingly enough Ulrich Fuchs expressed the wish if he could do it all over again he would avoid one mistake he felt was made, namely to publish the programme too early and thereby not to leave any space for surprise. That can mean a wish to avoid unpleasant surprises like the cancellation of already announced projects as well as wanting to be able to explain the decisions for such alterations to the supervisory board without bad publicity and critical opinions being expressed in the press. But this preference for negotiations behind closed doors contradicts the need for participatory forms through which culture works to let people understand what goes on and what measures of success do really apply. Since Ancient Greece it is well known that the estalishment of a just society is no easy task; all the more reason for having measures to mediate between efforts to attain this difficult goal and real steps undertaken towards the realization of a just society based on equality and artistic freedom so that citizens can express themselves openly in public spaces.

Surprise or not has also to do with what cultural organisers refer to as the management of expectations. Always for the records it is better if expectations are exceeded rather than being disappointed. The element of surprise is also an art of how to stage things. If everything is known before hand why then go and visit the European Capital of Culture?

premise for evaluation

The Cultural Development Plan

In 2000 Linz brought about a Cultural Development Plan which can be considered in retrospect as a successful cultural strategy on behalf of the city to make its bid within the Austrian context and to receive the designation of European Capital of Culture in January 2006.

Thus one methodological way to approach Linz in terms of evaluation would be to take that Cultural Development Plan in order to see which components of that plan were perceived and taken up by projects implemented in 2009. If not, then an answer should be given at conceptual level as to why the programme did not perceive this as an opportunity to implement at least elements of the Cultural Development Plan? This can include an open learning process with Linz '09 conceiving itself as part of the implementation strategy of the Cultural Development Plan.

As Thomas McCarthy wrote about Cork 2005 the difference between the programme presented for the bid and what was then the final plan used for implementation purpose tells a more realistic story about what goes, what not despite many inspirational ideas having been expressed at the outset. Again Bob Palmer puts a finger on the wound of European Capitals of Culture, insofar exactly these inspirational and innovative ideas are more often left by the wayside as reality kicks in, literally speaking.

The famous 'red Thread'

In looking at the programme and what took place over this one year, Linz '09 does not suggest that the individual events or parts form a mosaic with things falling into place as the implementation process goes through various stages.

Instead, there was a 'Big Bang' to start attracting the media interest and then the programme was reinforced mid way by having a set of big events to attract visitors. Other cities like Turku 2011 plan to go through different phases which allow a still further branching out of cultural activities like fibres in a leave stretching towards the light.

The organisers claim in the Final Report that the 'red thread' running through the programme to connect the various projects had been a concern to seek and to re-establish anew the 'identity of the city in relationship to Europe and the world'. Now identity is a huge and complex topic and has to be handled with care. Further reference to that shall be made in the context of how the organisers decided to deal with a troublesome past insofar as the question arises how to step out of a past i.e. negative identity and not yet into the assertion of having found and established a new identity.

This transition can be traced of course on how people end up identifying themselves differently with the city after the one year has passed. Something along those lines is being researched into by the Liverpool '08 impact research team. Upon a closer examination of these and other approaches it shows, however, that a confusion prevails between identity and image. The latter is much more subject and object of interest. That is reinforced by the marketing strategies deployed to sell a positive image of the city. Thus researches are diverted to examine not a cultural identity in the making, but how successful have been the campaigns to sell a new imagine of the city. Compared with Liverpool '08 making a transition from an ugly port town to a dynamic city with an ever expanding tourist trade Linz '09 seems not to have been able to achieve such a lasting new legacy at image level. Whether or not the identity of the city has changed as a result of the one year remains to be seen. An answer to that question depends whether or not that research question is taken up in near future for further impact assessment purposes.


The weakness of the programme becomes most evident by what is claimed to be sustainable. As a matter of fact little or nothing is named what shall last. Indeed the Final Report warns without further efforts the scarely named activities shall not continue. As a matter of fact after having read the Final Report it is unsure what will be the legacy of Linz when looking back ten years later or more to 2009. Already now can be imagined that it will be hard to see what has continued since then. Above all it is unclear what culture itself shall sustain in the process of having come to different terms with culture during that one year.

The European Dimension

Another reason behind such a programme may very well be the uneasiness the organisers felt about the European dimension. It seems that the organisers did not really know how to give their interpretation a concept which could inspire new proposals and bring together all projects so that Linz '09 could leave a mark as European Capital of Culture.

Highly revealing is the justification given by the organisers. In reference to other European Capitals of Culture, they use the term 'diversity' to justify Linz's own way of doing things. This means in reality that the so-called 'red thread' was not so much a search of the city's own identity in relation to Europe and the world but a covered up for not having found a convincing answer to that question. The programme amounts more to an array of many and different kinds of activities rather than being a clear expression of linking up with the productivity of culture prevailing in Europe. The failure to communicate in substance is, therefore, also a testimony of the failure to connect at decisive moments with cultural forces which could have supported Linz '09 in achieving a memorable year. This mistake of being mainly inwardly concerned as to how things done appear and are evaluated by the outside world is made repeatedly by other European Capitals of Culture. It amounts literally and culturally speaking to a failure to communicate in a convincing way with those concerned deeply as to what is happening to culture in Europe. More and more culture is being commercialized and handled at various official levels at best as factor of economic growth. This seems to be repeated by Linz with its emphasis upon the number of visitors and overnight stays as much as in having made money to be carried over into 2010.

claims of success

Still, the Final Report of the organisers claims Linz '09 to have been a success. There are figures to prove it e.g. number of visitors, revenues collected and the fact that there took place at least one event every day of the year.

Much more is claimed as permanent success by the organisers in their Final Report. Praised as good practice is the model they adopted for communication, sponsorship and getting everyone on board.

If it holds true then the concept for Linz '09 did succeed in taking visitors of normal cultural and established institutions and events out onto unusual paths where they could encounter new ways to experience the arts. Moreover it is stated that the population of Linz took pride in their city and identified themselves with the programme. Evidence for this are the numbers of record visitors to not only major events but to all events.

Praised in this context is the logos of the European Capital of City and the way different supports / supporters were integrated into the programme e.g. ticket contingencies, use of the official logo etc. A lot seemed to have been modelled on what the Olympic Games do or else what makes a museum successful insofar as revenue sources are diversified. At the same time, advertisement alters once communication links do include Facebook, Twitters and the like of what people tend to use in the modern communication era. The success of Linz '09 was linked as well to how the website became a major portal for people to visit in order to obtain information and follow the events.

The City as Acoustic Space

There is made one interesting claim in the Final Report that the project with the city as acoustic space was most successful and a proof of something sustainable having been achieved. The project was linked to the political and environmental intention to cut back in noise pollution. Thus it belongs really to the Agenda of the Greens in terms of environmental protection and reflects a political impact upon the cultural programme. In reality, this is not a proof of success as it confuses in reality the relationship between public and private spaces within a city. For the project sets out from the claim that people in public spaces are being imposed upon by noise coming from private spaces. It does not thematize sounds made by the youth being very different and requiring understanding of the adults rather than a reinforcement of prejudgements if not prejudices being most extreme by those who consider themselves to be ordinary citizens and therefore a part of main stream. Also it does not link noise to being signs of life nor that a city undergoes constantly a redesigned of its relationships between private and public spaces.

Still, the Final Report claims success in this matter as some other cities have adopted this notion and introduced themselves similar measures to cut back in noise pollution. The reason for mentioning this is that the city as acoustic space could have been an interesting concept, culturally and musically speaking, but without a conscious linkage to already made experiences the claim of being something new and novel is a bit odd. It suggests more a tendency towards trivializing experiences made rather than valorize and deepen them in a cultural sense. For instance, Greek composers using computer and electronic equipment to synthesize music out these new sounds used a novel empirical research basis for further reflections about music in the electronic age. They compared different sounds of church bells when a church is located beside the sea compared and not up in the mountains or in a crowded urbanised area. Through such comparison they got further ideas for modern compositions of music within new spaces. It inspired composers like John Cage.

In the case of Linz the starting premise for such anti noise movement was the claim to be a cultural project when it was much more riding the waves of a popular, equally disgruntled judgment of everyone who complains about noise in the city. At risk is to give in to such popular complaint and thereby to silence the city to the extent that it takes on the silence of a cemetery (Ernst Bloch). Instead thematizing differences between private and public spaces would have allowed for a redesigning of the entire city. Sounds may travel across the court yard when a neighbour shouts at his wife or when children play in their own noisy way next door but what is private and what is public? There have been too many legal suits against Kindergartens as childless couples feel disturbed by the sounds children make when playing. Also sounds in large boulevards compared to narrow streets could have been taken up. Some ideas along those lines had been expressed in the Cultural Development Plan drafted in 2000 insofar as it was suggested to map how people in local neighbourhoods communicate and where they prefer to hold their conversations and daily chats. Following the sounds of a city can become indeed a novel experience of spaces never realized before that they exist. One proof for that can be that a teacher in a badly build classroom will have to shout and strain his voice and thereby appear to be aggressive while not coming really across. Compared with the amazing acoustics in an Ancient Greek theatre such architectural mistakes can never be corrected even by the best teacher. The same can and does apply to a city as a whole with the odd contradiction that people with houses besides major routes are not disturbed by that noise as it is called oceanic waves whereas the noise of children at play does disturb them. A cultural way of dealing with such contradictions could lead to a better understanding of what Jürgen Habermas has called in the absence of a reasonable publicness a 'pathology of communication' and therefore another explanation of the failure to connect.


Linz '09 is an interesting example of overspending on communication (nearly 19% of the budget) while so little came across in substance. Media based success stories confuse the issue as they do not distinguish between advertisement, marketing, branding and just letting the realised events speak for themselves. It does confirm, however, the growing dependency of European Capitals of Europe from media and public relation companies as if only they are capable of getting the message across and to shape accordingly the so desired 'positive' image.

This image making process works very much like the establishment and promotion of a corporate identity to be associated with that specific city. Another term for that is official propaganda having nothing to do with the reality people live in. It favors over simplified pictures as if a mechanical spider driven through the streets of Liverpool stands for a thriving and successful city not only in 2009 but throughout all times. The Surrealists like Dali called this over exaggeration of just one imagine an exploitation of the paranoia driven mind which extracts one element from reality to blow it up before driving it back into reality. A sample of that is how such an image can silence so much else.

Bob Scott did emphasize in his speech and contributions when all gathered in Brussels, March 23 - 24, 2010 to celebrate 25 years of existence of the European Capitals of Culture saga that communication is most essential. To him that means having to go through well known channels. In the case of Liverpool 2008 he cannot remember how many times he went to London to visit the BBC. As a matter of fact Bob Scott seems to suggest even in an age of the Internet and Websites that the communication strategy cannot exclude but must pay ever more attention to national communication channels.

In the case of Linz, this would mean going fore mostly through Vienna and link up fore mostly with the German speaking regions around Linz, including Baveria. But by the sounds of the Final Report the organisers seem satisfied on how they managed to use and to solicit the support of different communication channels in order to get the programme of Linz '09 across.

Dealing with the past

As said already in the introduction Linz '09 had to deal with the past while its future may have been defined already by Ars Electronica. That contradiction became apparent in the official programme of Linz insofar as both were not really integrated. The topic of the past was tackled one year before. In the Final Report this move is praised for it let off steam, so to speak, and the special year could be initiated with a relative free conscience. At least the sigh of relief on the part of the organisers could be felt that they did not need to deal with the past throughout 2009. They argue as if they had succeeded by this move to put behind them the past.

Reference to the past means factually that Hitler had declared Linz to be the cultural Metropole of the Danube. At the same time the steel factory of Linz became a major industrial hub prior to the outbreak of Second World War. There were prosecutions and expulsions of the Jewish population as part of the Holocaust. Yet Austrians altogether showed after 1945 little interest to open that chapter and to examine how this alliance with German Fascism came about. Thomas Bernard expressed it best by citing no one told him anything about those years except for his grandfather.

In the Final Report is acclaimed an exhibition which opened in 2009 and which was called in German 'Kulturhauptstadt des Führers' (cultural capital of the leader) was a huge success. Many visitors came to see the exhibition. There were two further projects linked to an effort to come to terms with the past: one was showing the ruins of a house as artistic folia for bringing across the message of destruction during those times, and then there was display of many little messages to show what people think still today about that time. Altogether this seemed to underline to the satisfaction of the organisers the fact that Linz '09 even though it did not deal with it directly in the programme that at least it was acknowledged that the Holocaust did take place. But since culture works with memory, it becomes critical when deep human pain is silenced and the work of redemption as attempted by people like Jean Amery not brought into the main discussion throughout the entire year. Concessions like these have a taste of appeasement and reduces cultural efforts to mere tokens. Something is allowed to be expressed but only on the sidelines, at the periphery in order not to disturb the official festivities going on during the official year.

To face openly the challenges of the past would have to mean stepping out of the shadows of the past while not defining the changes in identity in a permanent way. A substantial cultural programme would have to open up among others to such notions as Adorno's 'non identity as identity'. It would free people from the need to identify themselves with the official culture being propagated as a form by which it is possible to silence the troublesome past and allow a way to come to terms with problems which indicate that the present is still linked very much to such a past. Hence the claim made in the Final Report that Nazism and the Holocaust could be put behind them before the start of the official year is unacceptable.

Compared to how Weimar dealt with this horrific past when European Capital of Culture, for it meant throughout that year to confront the legacy of a cultural heritage linked to Goethe and Schiller with the existence of the concentration camp Buchenwald outside the gates of the city, the question can be asked if the past can be dealt with the way Linz '09 has sought as being possible, namely not to make it into a part of the overall theme for the city. There is the question of George Steiner of a much more general nature which could have been addressed over and beyond the Holocaust and the existence of concentrations camps. For he asked how is it possible that someone can play Schubert songs on the piano the evening before going the next day into the camp to kill innocent people? The question can be rephrased if culture and reflections of art can halt such crimes against humanity? In a time of ever more Human Rights abuses and violations of even common principles of Humanity when someone seeks political asylum as do refugee fleeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely the programme of Linz '09 missed that crucial need to make through culture a substantial difference in how others are regarded and what cultural cooperations are needed in future to ensure a peaceful living together of people coming from varied cultural backgrounds and speaking another language. A confirmation that this was the exception rather than the rule of the programme is that the Final Report highlights and praises the threatrical performances from a South African group and from a Palestinian group coming from the refugee camp in the West Bank. No where else seems to have been dealt with the issues faced by immigrants without official papers and the need for cities to learn how to deal with multi culturalism.   

Linkage to experiences made by previous European Capitals of Culture

There would have been a possible connection insofar one major conference took place at the Kepler University and which the Final Report framed as the main link to previous experiences made by other European Capitals of Culture. That would lead one to expect reflections of an evolving understanding of the composition and developments of European culture in all its diversities and aspects affected by different happenings e.g. Greece never going through the period of the Enlightenment and the Celtic world just as ancient as Greek civilisation but with quite another imprint upon European consciousness of history and culture. Instead the conference was like the year's programme having almost everything and therefore nothing in terms of a real working through previously made experiences by other European Capitals of Culture.

Dealing with ongoing changes in the present - the cultural dialogue

As to the ongoing present, a city has to find ways to adapt to the ongoing changes. Here a city once designated to become the European Capital of Culture for one year can develop and enhance special forms of mediation. This is because culture stands at the fore front of these changes while artists in the coming experiment with new forms of expression even as they experience pressures to conform to past and already established forms of artistic expressions. Thus attention has to be given how this tension between the old and the new is being played out. The one year offers incredible opportunities to undertake novel things and therefore to make cultural investments become acceptable to the general population.

Of interest is here something the Final Report pointed out. Linz '09 did work in close collaboration with schools and the overall educational system. It solicited countless artists to take the arts into the schools and from there both pupils and teachers to new venues. Altogether the population was surprised over and again what venues were used in the city to show art.

Measuring this part of implementation means tracing changes in attitudes towards the arts and the new. At the same time, it has to be appreciated and realized that these changes would not have come or would have been realized only at a much later stage of development had it not been for this special one year. Realizing the full potentials of such an opportunity says equally a lot about how a city learns to adapt to the future and the needs for culture and the arts as a way to find orientation in the 21st century and within Europe.

first evaluation - a first answer to claims of success

Evaluation of how a city implemented its programme should not depend on who you know and which stories they prefer to tell. However, someone involved in the organisation like Ulrich Fuchs would insist on one thing, namely before making any comments about Linz, to consider that it does make a difference if one had been in the city during that specific year. If not, then one is without those intangible experiences so difficult to bring across. Still, a European Capital of Culture should stand up to this test and show what intangible experiences it managed to bring across especially to those who could not be there during that one year.

As a matter of fact culture does communicates quite well through various channels and does not rely solely on being made visible by the mass media which tends to send energy flows entailed in simple images over the heads of the masses. For instance, an incredible theatrical performance will let people continue talking about the novel staging of such a play.

It is also a matter of interest when the EU Commissioner Figel was present in Linz what was discussed and made an imprint upon future EU cultural policy. It is always of interest what legacy has been created during that year so that artists and culture in general are not left behind as time moves on.

Bob Palmer has raised over and again this issue of sustainability but in terms of cultural outputs, if one can use such a term, there is a difference when talking as measure of success about publications advertising really the events which took place during that one year and substantial publications as evidence of the work done over that one year e.g. the number of poems translated during the time when Cork was European Capital of Culture.

There are both tangible and intangible things which have a lasting effect and surely the infrastructural alterations a city undergoes to host cultural events will have a positive impact upon the city's future development. This linkage between urban planning in relation to culture needs to be reinforced if it is to become a substantial part of future European Capitals of Culture.

Problematic remains if not an entirely new discovery of the city within the European landscape then at least the experiences made during that one year should in the aftermath be brought into relation to the previous ones made by other European Capitals of Culture. In the absence of the ECCM Network, but also due to the change of pace brought about by the informal network under the leadership of Liverpool, it seems that this is not the case in Linz '09. Rather someone like Ulrich Fuchs has gone on into an advisory role for Marseilles 2013 while not tapping into the experiences made for the benefit of what can continue to be the work of culture in Linz. Therefore someone may well shrug the shoulders and say to Linz '09 despite all efforts made and successes claimed 'so what!'

Hatto Fischer

Athens 22.8.2010


1. For another version about this controversy between Heller and the Free Art Scene in Linz, see Bob Palmer and Greg Richards, European Cultural Capital Report no. 2. Atlas 2008, p. 16 - 17

The Final Report of Linz '09 can be downloaded at:

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