Berk Vaher: Tartu will share Arts of Survival with Europe

Berk Vaher, editor of Tartu 2024's bidbook.
Berk Vaher, editor of Tartu 2024's bidbook. Source: Pille-Riin Larm

Berk Vaher, editor of Tartu's bidbook for European Capital of Culture 2024, writes about the ideas behind the city's bid, Tartu's future, and the future of Europe. The winning bid will be announced on Wednesday.

Estonia is wondering: what is our place in Europe's future and what route can we help it take? More will be known on Wednesday when the 2024 Estonian European Capital of Culture is announced. Already in the preselection feedback, the international expert jury made it clear that expectations go beyond the bidding cities' hopes for their own gain and success. The verdict also largely depends on the boost they give their broader regions. Equally if not more vital, though, is how the bidding programmes relate to Europe – how winning cities are ready to handle problems shared by many other cities and regions in Europe.

Contributing to Tartu's bidding process, I have witnessed the spark and passion of the 19 southern Estonian municipalities that have joined our bid. Their eagerness does not spring just from geographic proximity – the Tartu bid "Arts of Survival" heralds our common value system. Adherence to these values has also enriched our bid with a multitude of partners across Europe. Among them, there's a range of previous and future European Capitals of Culture – including some who look rather distant on the map. Thus, "Arts of Survival" is largely the bid of this alliance across many state borders.   

We are connected by similar notions of what example should be set by European cities of culture for the coming years. People are increasingly conscientious about the goals of cities, no longer willing to link them to large industries and land-devouring expansion, hunger for profit and mass consumption. Rather, newer generations tend to feel at home in eco-friendly urban spaces or open rural communities where culture embraces people's traditions, aspirations and idiosyncracies regardless of their age, teaching real-life skills as well as helping to keep and recover well-being in mind and body. 

Virtual reality offers no refuge from the climate crisis, nor do apps dissolve fear and anxiety: we need culture that's much more sensitive to nature. Nature in the cities shouldn't just remain a blurry green design element; nature in arts shouldn't just be admired from a distance. In our Tartu 2024 bid, there are several projects where urban nature itself is the source, outcome and co-creator in cutting-edge arts. Nor does ICT have to be entirely banished: digital arts, too, can reawaken folkloric nature spirits to alert responsibility for the real world in danger. 

The rapid development of European cities has been a double-edged sword: in abundance of goods and services, memory and real-life skills have withered. As Estonia returned to the West, we lapsed into a cargo cult, growing ashamed of the times of need when we had to make do with old stuff or craft new things from the old ones. Now, hungover from binge shopping, Europe itself is discovering those recycling skills. Suddenly, the DIY mavericks have become innovation gurus. Gathering and sharing those skills also underlies much of the Tartu 2024 programme.

Indeed, our open calls for projects brought in a revelatory range of endeavours to share the "Eastern bloc" cultural treasure troves still too little known in Western Europe: our Surrealism and counterculture, utopias and dystopias in literature and film. Also, our outsider art. However, the Eastern European Art Brut exhibitions planned in the cities of Tartu, Viljandi, and Pärnu also aim at a more profound social impact. By extolling and explaining the artistic talent and human dignity of artists with mental health issues, the programme seeks to combat the Post-Soviet contempt still remnant across the former Eastern bloc social systems and, alas, in some Estonian cities. 

The Tartu 2024 Arts of Survival bid is founded on simple everyday idealism. We believe that in a culture that cares for nature and people, emerging and persisting immediate human relationships can go a long way in alleviating tensions, in negotiating ideological standoffs intensified by virtual and media overload, and in dispersing intercultural fear. Talk to the person, listen to them, go take a trip in the wild, craft something together … is it really as easy as that? Surely not always. But often, large-scale solutions start from the courage to create and maintain human connections. These are the arts of survival. These arts are dearly needed at a time when in Estonia, as well as in plenty of European smaller cities and rural areas, many people feel alienated from Europe which they have come to perceive as abstract and bureaucratic, leaving them disempowered in its decision-making even though they, too, have laboured years to build European living environments.  

In our critical self-assessment, we have conceded that Tartu might seem detached from such concerns. Our helping hand or reassurance of shared values has been needed more often than we've cared to notice. Thus, a cliché has emerged of the "splendid isolation" of Tartu, that we are a "petit bourgeois 'doll city' with enough of everything". But that is not true. Tartuvians, too, have recently felt scared and belittled by big money and power. But we overcame that fear and pressure when the Tartu Appeal civic initiative succeeded in getting the local authorities behind it to rule out the plans for the huge pulp mill that posed a substantial environmental hazard for the Emajõgi river. Tartu and the South could prevail thanks to the true passion of those who stood up for their turf. There were those who grumbled that Tartu slew a hefty golden goose but it took real courage to define ourselves as a 21st century future city. Now it's time to share our stamina with our soul mates across Europe.

Would we have had that stamina if it were not for a string of smaller-scale "Tartu appeals" emerging before? The Tartu of today was not born with a silver spoon in its mouth. People wanting change have worked long and hard for it, defying setbacks time and again. Just take a look of what has happened, and is happening, in urban planning focused on biodiversity and light traffic; self-awareness and ethnic openness of city districts; educational innovation in schools; street art and street culture at large; engaging citizens in decision-making. Today, Tartuvians can revel in the success of something that five or 10 years ago, was written off as just another "crazy idea" from a small group of activists.

Laying the groundwork for a capital of culture started much earlier than a few years ago. A large and growing amount of people have been bringing to life their dream of a truly advanced European living and creating space, gradually getting local powers and resources on their side. At first it might even sound dull that power, money, arts, and fresh initiatives are largely sharing the same values – where are the stark oppositions to be relished by the media? But the long-term experience of the European Capitals of Culture confirms that this kind of common ground is a prerequisite to having a long and wide-reaching legacy.

Without this common ground, the artistic programme tends to be built on sand, its impact but a placebo. I was glad and honoured to be a member of the creative council when Tallinn was European Capital of Culture in 2011, and I remember a range of inventive and inspiring events. A few of those ideas are still effecting the arts, creative industries, and civic consciousness. Yet those who were more immediately involved are often the first to concede ruefully that the programme as a whole could not alter deeply entrenched practices of city governance and planning in the capital city.

So I'm convinced that becoming a European Capital of Culture is well earned by a city whose inhabitants, neighbours, and international circle of friends have borne this aim in their hearts for years – with palpable results and solid plans for further improvement. This time, let's give the south a chance! Of course, the previously listed changes are still in their early stages and there's a lot to press on with together – but we dare to try. Together we can take the chance to make Tartu a truly 21st century cultural city that reconnects and reaffirms Europe.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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