European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Alfred Hickling „Our friends in the north“

South African puppets, a light show with lighthouses, and lots and lots of trolls ... Alfred Hickling reports from Stavanger - Europe's other Capital of Culture

It is a freezing January weekend and a crowd is staring upwards at the crowning moment of their city's inauguration as European Capital of Culture. But it's not Ringo drumming on the roof of Liverpool's St George's Hall - it's Norwegian stuntman Eskil Ronningsbakken cycling along a wire suspended over the tip of the icy fjord that bites into Stavanger harbour.

Ronningsbakken appears to lose his balance. The crowd gasp then cheer as he executes a confident handstand. It's a spectacular moment that seems to sum up Stavanger's bid to become European Capital of Culture for 2008: a feat of almost preposterous audacity.

The fact that Norway's fourth largest city was also celebrating over the weekend was, unsurprisingly, eclipsed in this country by coverage of Liverpool. But there is some reluctance on Liverpool's part to acknowledge that it is sharing its big year. Although the Stavanger 2008 website features a page wishing good luck to Merseyside, the Liverpool Culture Company's 200-page brochure does not make a single reference to its Scandinavian cousin.

Stavanger's programme can hardly be expected to compete with Liverpool's in terms of scale. Its budget is only £28.5m, just over a quarter of Liverpool's, and its population of 117,000 hardly competes with England's largest cities. Yet Stavanger has a history of punching above its weight: its imposing 12th-century cathedral was built when there were barely enough people to fill it, and offshore oil and gas in the 1960s transformed a small fishing community into a boom town.

Stavanger has always been a model of Norwegian self-sufficiency. Before oil, there were sardines; the often surreal graphic designs on the 19th-century sardine tin labels are arguably the city's most influential contribution to visual culture. Wages are high, unemployment practically nonexistent, and the chances of Stavanger's opening celebrations coinciding, as Liverpool's did, with teenage gang shootings in the suburbs are remote. According to the Global Peace Index, Norway is the safest country in the world.

"Stavanger has what many would consider to be the perfectly functioning society," says Mary Miller, the Scottish director of Stavanger's 2008 celebrations. "Yet that might equally be perceived as its problem. There's a danger that in a society where everyone is middle class, there will also be a certain insularity and a reticence to submit to new ideas."

The city has a highly regarded symphony orchestra and a productive regional theatre, but unlike Oslo, which hosts the annual Ibsen festival, and Bergen, the birthplace of Grieg, Stavanger has no major figure to celebrate. Instead, the 2008 programme sets out to challenge parochialism by emphasising international influence, although there are no major celebrities or big names adding glamour to the bill. "If you brought in the Berlin Philharmonic," says Miller, "people would say, 'But we have a perfectly good orchestra here.'"

Instead, Miller has devised a themed programme known as Open Port, based on a series of residencies from four companies that are nothing if not diverse: Tel Aviv's Inbal Pinto dance company, the Oskaras Korsunovas theatre company from Lithuania, the Belgian experimental opera group Transparant, and the Handspring Puppet workshop of South Africa. Each will create a new piece by working with local residents and artists.

Miller's decision to import cultural practitioners has not gone unchallenged. In 2005, graffiti around the city demanded "Ka ta ittepa?" (What happens afterwards?), the slogan of a pressure group of local artists who felt excluded. "The fact is," argues Miller, "there simply are not sufficient Norwegian artists to create the work required for a project of this scale or ambition on their own. We have to remember that we are supposed to be delivering a European capital of culture, not a Norwegian one."

Though the cultural landscape of Stavanger remains relatively small, the physical landscape is astounding, and many of the year's events belong to a unique genre that straddles dance, theatre - and extreme sport. Abseil specialists Bandaloop will hurl themselves off a rock face; 100 residents will take part in a light-and-snow spectacular, accessible only by ski lift; and Rogaland Theatre will colonise an entire island to present a site-specific work, Adventures in Landscape. Meanwhile, international artists have been challenged to turn the region's cluster of lighthouses into a linked light installation laced along the coast.

Naturally, this being Norway, there are trolls. In bygone years, the citizens of Stavanger rang the church bells to keep the elfin folk away, but at the opening celebrations on January 12 they were out in force: stalking around the cobbled streets of the old town centre before converging on Breiavatnet, a lake at the heart of the city, which became the scene of a magical pageant featuring burning boats floating across the water.

An estimated 60,000 people turned out for the festivities, which continued all night with concerts in churches and bars, concluding with a grand party at Tou Scene, a 19th-century former brewery that's the hub of Stavanger's alternative scene. Tou Scene is the home of the NuMusic Festival, a summer event that promotes art exhibitions alongside dance nights and visits from electronic music pioneers; two years ago the late Karlheinz Stockhausen was the guest of honour. A mini-festival last weekend included a set by Knut Jonas, alternately known as King Knut, a DJ and producer born in Stavanger and now living in London.

Stavanger is proud of its status as the largest wooden city in Europe, though its 18th- and 19th-century clapboard houses now share the city with the concrete blocks of oil company headquarters. By the end of 2008, Norwegian Wood, the inevitable name for the competition for new timber constructions, aims to have completed a dozen building projects in the region, including 400 living spaces, two bridges, a kindergarten and a mountain lodge. The €20m (£15m) invested in Norwegian Wood will be one visible legacy of the Capital of Culture long after the fireworks have faded. Though relatively modest, the project stands in striking comparison to Liverpool's failed plan to build a "fourth grace" on the waterfront.

Stavanger's targets may be smaller than Liverpool's, but by expecting less it could end up achieving rather more, or seeming to. "We are so much the little cousin of Liverpool that there are many areas where we cannot even hope to compete," says Grete Kvinnesland of the Norwegian Wood project. "But there is one aspect of culture in which we cannot be beaten. What is the one thing that everyone who comes to Stavanger remembers? Little wooden houses."

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Source: Guardian, Alfred Hickling Wednesday 16 January 2008

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