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Lecture at the conference "Development with identity: the significance of culture in international cooperation", University of Cantabria, December 14, 2007, Santander

Identification and site: access to culture.

I want to thank the University of Cantabria and the ArtSur Foundation their invitation to this cultural cooperation conference. Culture is a word more and more present in the international cooperation discourse, and we should take advantage of its relevance in order to better understand the context and reach of our actions. In this sense, maybe the title of this lecture should say "access to cultures", in plural, trying to stop understanding culture more or less as a unit.

Here in Spain, a good example of the "culture" (in singular) relevance is the Culture + Development Strategy, which stands for the Spanish Cooperation Plan 2005-2008 guidelines in this field. In fact, last month the Spanish International Cooperation Agency held the "Culture, cooperation and development" course, with the aim of raising some culture application basis as an instrument to fight against poverty and inequialities -as the Agency itself states- and also to improve human abilities and to promote diversity and equity. I will return to this strategy later, although I won’t try to analyze any specific institutional text, but to go downwards and reach the viewpoints that are still present to a large extent in international cooperation. We must think again the "cooperation", "culture" and "development" concepts. Not only because their Europe-centred and Enlightened origin still imply an intended universality, which many times is problematic, but also because such an attitude still has an influence on many projects, actions and practices.

Nowadays, many voices are helping us to understand the complexity that stands behind these concepts, from researchers and lecturers to social movements and community organizations. It’s common to hear about cultural diversity, and even though domination times (to admit differences but not equity) seem to fall behind, it’s not so obvious if the same happens to assimilation (to ignore differences because of certain universal equity)(1). Fair plurality situations are not so common as they should. The Modern, Enlightened idea of culture agrees with the Spanish dictionary definition: "Whole ways of life and customs, knowledge, and artistic, scientific and industrial development degree in a time, social group, etc." Let’s notice the "development degree" expression and ask ourselves if it’s really possible to establish hierarchies. At the same time, culture in its other sense, as "cultivation", implies a didactic nature: it is something that is taught and learned. This image, in which someone transmits a culture with certain development degree to others, is the source of many misunderstandings. Suffice it to say that cultures interact among themselves through transference and negotiation processes at different levels and several ways. Raimon Pannikar refers to intercultural dialogue as a praxis that not only changes and deals with ideas, but also changes actions and attitudes(2), that is, changes us as individuals and communities.

In order to better illustrate the cultural dialogue idea, let me resort to art. The artistic event does not lie in artworks by themselves, but in a series of complex communicative processes. Art is an event that happens when the spectator meets the artwork, reading it in accordance with her or his own experiences and, at the same time, opening new interpretation possibilities(3). This way, as long as artwork allows new and different approximations, it remains valid as such. Something similar happens with culture in general, since it is re-elaborated through continuous transmission and exchange actions. Every culture is a practice, and all cultures take place in an incessant re-formulation. Even so, we shouldn’t overlook that the absence of cultural equity can generate a not-negotiated imposition of social, economic and political models.

Before, I was talking about development degrees related to culture. In fact, the most common notion of development has a specific cultural origin. We can find the historic and geographic ingredients of this "gradual evolution of an economy towards better standards of living" idea. It is a key concept in the European Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The consecutive development processes in an Enlightened and industrial Europe, obtained thanks to colonialism, are still exported as a way to go, even though the geopolitical circumstances that made them possible are obviously not available for everybody. Eurocentrism has been based on the argument of its own universality, turning subordinate other cultures and knowledges, sometimes with violence.

It is true that development has been re-defined since then. Recently, some adjectives have been added to it, such as "social" or "sustainable". The previously mentioned Culture + Development Strategy uses the same language as the United Nations Development Programme, emphasizing the so called "human development", which takes into account less economy-related signs (education, health, nutrition), although they are also variations of the standard of living. Poverty measuring chriteria are based on the fulfilment of certain essential needs, as they are defined by international institutions: again with Eurocentric preconceptions, assuming that continuous accumulation of goods means a better future. Faced with this, some authors even suggest giving up the whole development idea. One of them, Serge Latouche, says:

"…either the word development, outside its historic context, designates the whole and its opposite: all historic experiences of cultural dynamics in the history of mankind, from Han dynasty in China to Inca Empire and, in that case, it doesn’t designate anything particular, has no useful meaning to promote any policy and it’s better to get rid of it; or it has its own content, necessarily related to the western experience of economic take off, let’s say, after Industrial Revolution in England between 1750 and 1800"(4)

Chriteria about standards of living are not the same everywhere, therefore some authors talk about "endogenous development"(5) and link it to territory, understood as a group of associated relations with shared goals. Maybe this position is closer to the site-based strategies that I will talk about later. Even the need of "provincializing Europe"(6) has been suggested, that is, to conceive the European model from the inside as one among many others, with a view to a more wide and varied world.

Let’s go back to the prevailing conceptions of culture and development. If we unite them, we will obtain a pretty clear outline of what cooperation still means for many people involved in it. There still are institutions and people that act, more or less unconsciously, thinking in the local-western model turned into universal premise, suffering from cultural incomprehension and assistencialism. It’s common to avoid the task of building bridges of understanding.

We should keep on thinking about cooperation, culture and development. We must be able to defy our assumptions and understand ourselves as creative dialogues. In order to illustrate this idea, allow me to return to art. Poetic language (creative, artistic) is located at the boundaries of what can be said or thought; neither inside the limits of the thinkable universe nor beyond them, but in a border that allows us to widen the conceivable. It is also about exposing "the enunciation site that reveals and denounces the blindness of the narrative" implied in our acts(7).

To do so, I suggest two conceptual axes: identification and site. By identification I mean the act of taking hold of meanings and contents. Just like Creole languages, which add foreign linguistic forms to their own, and subvert it all in a creative way. Since "in knowledge, an autonomous indiviual doesn’t exist" and "every knowledge has a relationship aspect and a material substrate"(8), intercultural cooperation actions must favour identification of recipients, so the contents can be jointly adapted and the activities themselves can be able to transform all the people involved, including those who carry out the project. Therefore the differences between those who "offer" cooperation and those who "receive" it can be blurred.

Regarding site, it is the cultural scope par excellence, the scenario for living cultures, and it includes several components, from ways of organization to natural environment. The porous (interconnection, networks) is fundamental. We shouldn’t forget here that both culture and site are constantly deterritorialized, although they are important. Site isn’t only related to a specific territory and its inhabitants, it includes a series of relationships, movements and imagery that shape it continuously. Today, a clear example of this are the transnational activities of migrants. The special feature of site doesn’t lie on the obvious.

Through identification and site I try to understand cultural cooperation from plurality, staying away from social preconceptions that repeat themselves. Appling these axes to the concepts "cooperation", "culture" and "development", we obtain some terms that may allow us to have a field of reference and identify desirable effects:

adaptation / challenge
plurality / diversity
cohesion / interconection

Throught local identification with site-based initatives, we could aspire to produce these situations:

-Appropriation, a process through wich community takes hold of the initative or project.
-Continuous contribution within the specific coordinates and ways of organization in each site.
-Exchange: intercultural relations and culture production at the same time.
-A double process of adaptation to the local context and challenge, understood as a creative potential.
-Plurality and diversity of development models and strategies.
-Cohesion as reinforcement of local relationships, and networks of dialogue with other sites.

I don’t suggest this diagram as a guide, but as a work in progress that feeds our practices.

Not too far away from these ideas, Arizaldo Carvajal(9) believes that the projects need, in order to be culturally compatible: to produce benefits; to take advantage of existing resources and traditional organizations; to point towards locally perceived goals of change, and to have suitable and tolerant designs. Also, in order to include cultural aspects, they should: seek advise from compared knowledge of the involved cultures and social experts; pay attention to cultural diversity and compatibility; take into account the innovations that give answers to locally perceived necessities more than abstract goals; take advantage of existing social units and authority lines; involve the potential recipients in project identification and make an inventory of their contributions.

There are two well-known examples that illustrate identification and site-based strategies; I haven’t taken part in neither of them, I chose them so I could talk unpassionately. They are the Venezuelan National System of Young and Child Orchestras and the Park-Libraries Programme of the Medellin Council in Colombia.

The National System of Young and Child Orchestras has been working for almost 30 years. It was established by José Antonio Abreu as a musical teaching programme adapted to the different regions of Venezuela, and mostly aimed towards vulnerable groups in socioeconomic terms. It has created several high quality orchestras, some of them with an extensive international experience. Recently, we have been hearing a lot about Gustavo Dudamel, trained in the System since he was a kid, current director of Göteborg Symphony Orchestra and next director of Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2009 on. Regardless of the size of the project or the past and present supports of different Venezuelan administrations, by means of seriousness and rigour it has managed to involve numerous sectors of population that constantly feed it and make it grow, even though it doesn’t demand full time dedication from youngsters and children. It’s obvious that there’s a strong identification feeling towards the orchestras, and one of their distinctive features is the inclusion of traditional and regional repertories.

As an example of creative adaptation to sites, there are the Park-Libraries of the Medellin Council. These cultural infrastructures are built in outlying neighbourhoods with visible problems: poverty, marginalization, lack of basic infrastructures (water pipes and sewer system, access difficulties, electricity supply, among others). Their first achievement is just that, to be in the recipients’ neighbourhood. But they also have good resources and services: a wide catalogue (for children and young people above all), comfortable facilities, auditorium, ludoteque, free internet connections, kind and well trained staff, extended visiting hours. Up to now there are four libraries open in different Medellin neighbourhoods, and the architectural designs are pretty daring for their urban context. In the particular case of the library in Santo Domingo Savio, designed by Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, the access is through a cable railway linked to the subway that makes the route accross a steep multitude of narrow streets without pavement considerably shorter.

The challenge that these buildings mean in such surroundings is laudable in itself, because it provides the neighbourhoods with collective heritage, "friendly" enough without being accommodating or poor quality. The proccess through which local communities assume them as their own is even more decisive, since the project doesn’t put conditions or force such an identification, but makes it possible. Continuous activities are very important, and also the efforts by local staff, which manages to be open-minded and warm in front of everybody, above all in front of large groups of dirty and wet children who can get inside their library after playing in the street.

(1) See Todorov, Tzvetan. "The conquest of America: the question of the other". Siglo XXI: Buenos Aires, 2003.
(2) Pannikar, Raimon. "The imprescindible dialogue". Península: Barcelona, 2003.
(3) "Only in contemplation, the work of art gives itself in its being-creature as real, that is to say, being present now with its artwork nature. If a work of art cannot be without being created, since it needs the creators essentially, neither the created can reach existence without contemplation."
Heidegger, Martin. "The origin of the work of art", in "Art and poetry". Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1988. p. 104.
(4) Latouche, Serge. "Surviving development. From un-colonization of economic imagery to the construction of an alternative society". Icaria: Barcelona, 2007. pp. 20-21. See also: Rist, Gilbert. "Development. History of a western belief". Libros de la Catarata: Madrid, 2002.
(5) Authors such as Gustavo Esteva, Elies Furió or Antonio Vázquez Barquero. See Carvajal Burbano, Arizaldo. "Development and culture. Elements for action and reflection". Valle University: Cali, 2007. p. 73.
(6) Chakrabarty, Dipesh. "Provincializing Europe". Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2000.
(7) Mignolo, Walter. "Local histories / global designs: Coloniality, subaltern knowledges and border thinking". Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 2000.
(8) Escobar, Arturo. "Beyond the Third World. Globalization and difference". Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History – Cauca University: Bogotá, 2005. p. 85.
(9) See Carvajal Burbano, Arizaldo: 2007.



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