Festival City 2: Marseille (2013)


European Capital of Culture’ is a roving title that cities bid to hold. The chosen cities – 2 per year since 2000 – organise an intensive series of cultural events and artistic experiences for a full calendar year. It’s a bit like a Cultural Olympiad, which I introduced previously, but just for one year, and without any javelin or fencing in sight. And not unlike the Cultural Olympiad, it is meant to act as a catalyst for the cultural development and the transformation of the selected cities, which tend therefore to be selected because they’re in need of a bit of cultural policy magic.

The European Commission has conducted substantial research on the effects and legacy of Capital of Culture, and has a report available for download that examines the organisational and financing aspects as well as the social, economical and cultural impacts in 29 cities that held the title from 1995 to 2004.

But enough about numbers – time to indulge in some programming envy. Here’s a look at what’s going on this year in Marseille , European Capital of Culture co-title holder with Košice, Slovakia. Bear in mind that these are just a few highlights!

  • One of the flagship events is TransHumance, developed by Marseille-based equestrian experience-makers Théâtre du Centaure, which will unfold from 17th May to 9th June. It’s a huge collective experience drawing on the century-old tradition of transhumance – walking alongside cattle between their summer and winter pastures. The trailer video is absolutely stunning.
  • On the urban regeneration front, 15 Creative Urban Projects (Quartiers créatifs) are “encouraging residents to appropriate public spaces and contribute to their transformation”. A local community radio is producing a documentary to support and further these initiatives.
  • Participatory and local are big keywords: Chercheurs de Midi is a project gathering photographs by local residents, on public display throughout 2013. Histoires Vraies is a multilingual digital library of ‘real stories’ – text, sound or video recordings, bringing ‘real people’ from Marseille, Provence and beyond to the forefront.
  • New Patrons (Nouveaux Commanditaires) is an innovative way of commissioning art: “Giving to all people – independent of financial means, educational or social status – the means to assume responsibility to commission the work of an artist for the general good.” It’s a European-wide scheme, not exclusive to Marseille 2013, and the 3-step process is explained on the official website: (1) an individual or group identifies an issue, (2) is put in contact with a mediator/curator who helps them to connect with an artist to respond to their brief and (3) supports them through the fundraising and production process. The 9 Marseille commissions are placemaking and public space intervention projects “for the general good”, by artists such as Lucy and Jose Ortega, Krijn de Koning, Tadashi Kawamata and Berdaguer & Pejus.
  • An online zine, written by students ranging from about 13 to 20 years old and mentored by professional journalists, follows the events and activities all year.
  • And there’s even a Fringe – or as we like to call it in France, “un Off – with its own currency, a giant garbage bin, bizarre shop windows interventions and much, much more. It’s an artist-led programme with a tongue-in-cheek attitude that acknowledges the contradictions and contrasts that make up the ‘real’ city – ugliness, intolerance, bad art… – and provides an alternative to the official discourse. The Fringe is an autonomous and spontaneous response to the official project: it’s already a sign of vitality and dialogue. I’ll come back to this phenomenon in a later post.

The art of commissioning


I’m just back from a wonderful evening of new music courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and their long-running New Creations Festival, which has just concluded its 9th edition tonight with its grand finale, Tod Machover‘s A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City. To create the musical portrait of the city, the composer turned over to its people, and not only listened to them, but invited them to participate in the writing of the piece. The festival’s theme was the celebration of the partnership between technology and music, and the technology in this case was provided by none less than MIT, in the form of a graphic notation software that could be used by schoolchildren and anyone else who wanted to contribute.

What was especially interesting about it was how visible the creative process itself was left to observe, and how intensely collaborative it had been. From MIT Media Lab, who provided their technological expertise and tools, to teachers learning to use the software to in turn guide their students through it, via the TSO Youth Orchestra who helped to transcribe city sounds recorded by Torontonians into musical notation, right up to the CN Tower, Toronto’s freestanding structure, that offered a special light show synchronized to the performance, there were many hands and minds at play, and Tod Machover did an extraordinary job of turning all these contributions into one piece of playable – and listenable – music

Of course the event was duly noted as a ‘World Premiere’ and ‘TSO Commission’ in the brochure, and this brings me to a common trait of many festivals: presenting new and recent works or instigating their creation.  Some festivals have made it into a distinctive feature – such as Manchester International Festival, self-described as “the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events”. In the same city, the Manchester Jazz Festival formalised their commissioning scheme a few years ago, making it an open application with clear criteria and naming the scheme mjf originals (I have some claim to the name, and produced the first two official selections in 2008, Matt Owens’ Ten and Olivia Moore’s Mask).

The next mjf originals commission will be premiered this coming July, and here’s a taster from the website: “a collaboration between Mike Hall and Deborah Rogers, a new and quite unique ensemble that will fuse early renaissance music and contemporary jazz, with a mixture of modern and replica 16th century instruments”, such as “crumhorns, shawms, cornamuses, cornets, sackbuts, lute, gemshorns and recorders”. Pretty original indeed.

Right from the start, mjf originals has been an open application scheme, whereby artists can submit their project and be selected on clearly stated criteria (one of them being the connection of either the composer, the performers or the concept itself to Manchester and its region). Selected applicants are then invited for an informal interview to present their project in more details, and the fees and production budget and timeline are jointly decided with the mjf team. It’s an artist-led commissioning process, probably as transparent and collaborative as it gets, and following the creative process from first draft to performance was a huge perk of the job.

And as a post-scriptum, Tod Machover’s new commission has just been announced: he will be bringing his crowd-sourced symphony to Edinburgh International Festival, this time inviting contributions from all over the world, alongside 10 other premieres revealed here.