Fort Collins is one of many cities around the world where citizens and economic development initiatives such as Beet Street work to distinguish a city as an “intellectually vital community that fosters, celebrates, and inspires human creativity through diverse cultural experiences and programming.” These endeavors have wonderful implications for present and future citizens and economies where cultural events and programs provide opportunities for intellectual and business growth. But growing a vital community requires continual mental work and the kind of creative thinking that asks us to stretch and reevaluate what we think we already know and understand about ourselves. Diverse cultural experiences and programs ask participants to see things from new perspectives, because seeing things from new perspectives is fundamental to inspiring human creativity. Multiple approaches to history, ideas and living together lead to multi-faceted, individualistic or even idiosyncratic points of view that complicate ideas about who we are and who is allowed to define the parts of our collective culture. When opposing histories and experiences are routinely acknowledged and valued, it is more likely that people will become involved, more interested and more active in the cultural life of a city. So what happens in a city where past economic and historical experiences create seemingly vast divides in how individual citizens create a sense of place?
Linz, Austria is an interesting example of a city where history could create seemingly irreconcilable differences. Since 1985, one or two cities across Europe have been selected to represent Europe as “European Capital of Culture” for a year, with the list of future capitals until the year 2019 already named. The aim of this program is to “showcase the richness, variety and similarities of European cultures and help European citizens to gain a better understanding of one another.” This year, Linz is the European Capital of Culture and in its efforts to attract visitors and host diverse Europeans, the city has chosen to openly address the fact that it does not exist in a social, historical and political vacuum. This means that although arts and cultural events are part of creating exciting and memorable celebrations, Linz is consciously addressing the fact that how it promotes itself as well as who is considered important in the city will have lasting effects. That is, Linz is actively preparing for the future by coming to terms with its past rather than passively letting “history repeat itself.” In the past, Linz existed as a “Führerstadt” or “Führer City,” encircled by the extermination camps of Mauthausen, Gusen, Ebensee and Hartheim. Today, architectural evidence of the crimes of the past mingle with contemporary life in Linz and its vicinity. For example, “Hitlerbauten,” the industrial facilities of the VOEST built on the foundations provided by the “Hermann Göring Werke,” and other seemingly uncontroversial public buildings, were constructed from materials like granite—materials that concentration camp prisoners paid for with their lives.
Historically, the concentration camp Mauthausen was the final destination for deportees from all over Europe and this year, the city of Linz would like more Europeans to visit the area. They could have chosen to ignore the past and only focus on celebrating arts and culture in collective denial. Instead, they are attempting to find new ways of talking about the past that defy collective amnesia and are relevant to both the region and the rest of Europe. Projects are making sure that people have accurate knowledge of the past but go further than allowing people to merely evade guilt. Leaders in Linz have identified their task as that of encouraging discussion about the developments and social mechanisms that made it possible for historical events to occur in the first place. They want participants to question the ideology underpinning the Nazi era, and make connections to how it continues to subtly affect and inform European societies to this day.
For example, the mission statement for Linz09 identifies that history will be dealt with by using different narrative styles, including “the polemical, factual, sober and provocative.” Different projects throughout the year are intended to encourage diverse audiences to engage with the area from new perspectives. The idea is that cultural discourse can exist in multiple forms that include dissent or feeling uncomfortable. One project supported by federal and national funding, “The Invisible Camp,” is designed to reactivate the hidden memory of parts of the region where citizens now live and relax. Using an i-Pod, visitors walk through residential developments listening to a soundtrack of reminiscences from survivors and witnesses as to what happened there. The voices include present day inhabitants, soldiers and even members of the SS who were responsible for sending people to concentration camps. The stories bring to life what is normally left unsaid and visitors cannot ignore what they can no longer physically see. You can visit Linz, the city that Hitler wanted to make his cultural capital, to explore its museums, cyberart Ars Electronica center, street celebrations, cultural and religious sights and even tour the city from above on rooftop scaffolding. You can also be asked or ask uncomfortable questions.
Another project in Linz uses signs to make a point. During 2009, the most important access routes leading into Linz will be relabelled. The new street names use languages that are “foreign” to many of the city’s citizens in order to bring attention to the present day ethnic complexity of Linz. The proactive goal for the signs is to point out that the reality of living in Linz demands the “kind of democratic attitude that is so needed and so necessary in all areas of a life lived together rather than merely side by side.” The project also works as a test case to determine how cosmopolitan the majority of Linzers really are as hosts to the rest of Europe. It’s an exciting examination of cultural identity–real and perceived! You can read more about Linz09 here. If Linz can combine tourism and address conflict while celebrating contemporary life, do you think cities of all sizes and in other parts of the world can put their model to use?
Art and community make life!