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Two academics and a theatre-maker reflect on ‘the city as a laboratory’. It leads to plenty of verbal sparring and fireworks. But there’s one message coming through loud and clear: we need to change the discourse about the city.
Text: Aubry Cornelis
Photos: Deborah Puylaert
With the launch of konekt.brussels, VUB is encouraging its students to embrace the city more than ever. What can we expect from such an experiment? Michael De Cock, artistic director of the Royal Flemish Theatre KVS, Free De Backer, professor of education science, and social geographer Bas van Heur, director of the Brussels Centre for Urban Research, have given it some thought.
Where better for a young person to come of age than in the city? De Cock: “A city is overwhelming, and it does something to you. All those choices, all that free time. For the first time you’re really focused on one study area. That made a big impression on me.” And Van Heur agrees. “The complexity of the city has a particular appeal when you’re moving from adolescence to adulthood,” he says. De Backer: “A university in a big city must examine society in terms of urban challenges.” “Watch out,” De Cock warns. “Just like the wrong discipline, you can also choose the wrong city. That’s also something to consider.”
A ghetto and romantic longing
Is the city the natural habitat of the free-thinker, of the recalcitrant world-changer? That’s perhaps a little simplistic. The question is rather: what interaction brings out the best of a city? Van Heur reminds us that states were founded on cities, which to a certain extent applies to nationalistic thinking. “Was that new, progressive thinking at the time? New, yes, but not progressive per se. That mistake often enters the discourse about the city: that new automatically means progressive. In cities you have lots of people close together. It’s only in this context that niches can survive; in a village there isn’t the critical mass. The anonymity of a city makes that possible. For me that’s positive.”
De Cock: “Are you saying that segregation doesn’t have to be a problem?” Van Heur: “Indeed. It doesn’t have to be.” De Cock: “The pendulum can swing dangerously quickly.” Van Heur: “Forcing more social interaction doesn’t solve all our problems. If you call a lack of social cohesion problematic, then you’re creating that romantic longing for a homogenous society. So I really don’t believe in that.”
According to De Backer, it depends on how far you zoom in. “The European quarter is really a ghetto. Although there is a healthy interaction between people of different nationalities, it remains a closed society. Free thinking depends on who crosses your path. Interaction is crucial.” “And how can you bring all these interactions together?” De Cock wonders. “How do you get the most out of a dynamic city? Take the cooperation between the KVS and VUB. How can cultural and academic institutions interact with each other?”
Van Heur: “Living alongside each other isn’t ideal, nor is forcefully looking for cohesion. I believe more in the friction of difference. VUB perhaps sets a bad example, by isolating itself on its own campus. It’s not particularly conducive to developing an urban mindset.”
Wrong glasses, wrong focus
Rector Caroline Pauwels calls inequality a huge challenge for the city. Is the city a catalyst, or should it reduce inequality? De Cock: “By all means. Reducing the democratic deficit, making sure that the resources for education and culture end up in the right places. The city must play an active role in that. We don’t live in the suburbs, and a monocultural Brussels doesn’t exist. Here, the majority is made up of minorities!”
De Backer believes that policymakers too often see things through Flemish eyes. A recent study of the leisure needs of young people in the Brussels canal zone showed that they had informally developed their own places to spend time. “That’s not to say that existing organisations shouldn’t receive any more resources to invest in free time and cultural participation, but it does show that we don’t completely understand Brussels.”
“Really, a city is in itself one continuous circle of knowledge,” Van Heur remarks. “A university doesn’t always get to lead, and that’s hard. Universities are no longer centres of power and knowledge. But because of institutional heritage and all kinds of financial conditions, they have no choice but to cling on to that.”
According to De Backer, there is still a hierarchy of different forms of research. “Not everybody needs academic knowledge.” Van Heur agrees. “If we’re going for urban engagement, we have to recognise that we can’t always be the dominant partner. We have to learn from others, and above all learn to absorb other forms of knowledge.”
De Cock adds: “The whole idea of studying and culture needs to be rethought. We need fewer top-down approaches. There’s been an enormous revolution in recent years. And not just on the stage. Communities have formed that have seen to that. The challenge then is to steer institutions like the KVS and VUB in these new networks.”
Top of the world
A monotone view of knowledge is not the only difficulty. Subjects that we associate with Brussels are also becoming passé. Brussels is not a foreigner surrounded by Flemish bourgeoisie. Van Heur: “There is a big difference between what is spread in the media and what is actually happening on the ground. In the past ten years, Brussels and its hinterland haven’t grown apart, the differences are in fact diminishing.” But according to De Cock, political soundbites tell a different story.
Van Heur: “It’s down to education and culture to start another discussion. That’s why it’s good that young people are already discovering the city via the university. You get to know the city through your own experiences, and not from what you’ve heard.” De Backer: “People need to find out themselves if Brussels is something for them.” De Cock: “When it comes to the arts scene, dance, theatre, the world is paying attention to what is happening here. The explosion of creativity and talent arouses jealousy. We’re not part of a leading group, we’re out in front on our own. This city is looking towards the future. Let’s lose this fatalistic attitude.”
“If the starting point is defeatism, then the shutters quickly come down,” De Backer notes. “So you lose sight of valuable things. The success of our dance scene is nothing new, for example. But we’re not aware enough of it. So we don’t make enough of it, we don’t link it to the Brussels identity.”
Van Heur is in complete agreement. “Let’s reposition our frame of reference. Think about the future, and see Brussels not just as a part of Belgium. Focus for example on our cultural leadership in a European setting.” De Cock pipes up: “We do nothing but this! But it’s not always heard. Another strange thing: multilingualism. Why do some see that as a problem and others something to be proud of? I don’t believe in turning a subject like diversity into a problem.” Van Heur: “Brussels is overdefined. The stories are so standardised. If anywhere needs more diversity, it’s the stories about Brussels.”
Let Brussels and its students discover each other, in short, without a script. That’s what a laboratory set-up is all about in the end, isn’t it? De Cock: “Questions about how we look at mobility, ecology, work and free time have a big future. Mindblowers, the play that artists and scientists put on stage on 25 September, puts that in concrete terms. We asked artists and academics what resistance means for them. The answers from both groups showed a striking agreement: the desire to give something back.”
Van Heur: “More than a laboratory – that is primarily a metaphor – the city is a setting in which you can study circumstances in order to improve them. It’s about feasibility, thinking together about models, solutions, practical things. It’s experimental. We don’t have a solution lying around. We keep modifying until something useable and sustainable comes out. It often works.” De Cock recognises this. “That sounds like an artistic process. There’s so many useless things said about culture and academic strength. We’re so focused on efficiency; that market thinking eats us up.”
The three are in agreement about one thing: too much efficiency comes at the cost of ‘wild’ thinking. If art and research become too instrumental, it weakens their power of expression.