Institutions – are cultural institutions something we dream of?

6 women and 9 men. Three people over 50, otherwise they are younger, between 26 and 39 as I would guess. They have gathered at Teater Skogen near Masthuggstorget in Gothenburg. To discuss institutions. And dreams. ”Can we dream about institutions” Johan Forsman wrote in announcing this discussion.

Johan is artistic leader at Skogen and together with, among others, Joel Nordström, dramatist and dramaturg at Göteborg City Theater, he arranges this discussion forum for anybody interested.

Institutions. Do we want to, do we need to discuss institutions? And how realistic is Johan’s idea of people having dreams of institutions and how they should work?

All those present are experienced in working with culture. In one way, I’d say this discussion begins in a tentative mood. However, it’s with a lot of knowledge and experience in the baggage that this groping for something central to the idea of culture and institutions is undertaken. They are experienced artists and knowledgeable cultural organizers meeting here.

There’s an opening coming up when Johan mentions why cultural institutions were created to begin with. He mentions the City Theater in Gothenburg and the British Museum in London, suggesting it’s a universal question. And clearly, one part of our discussion could be the aims and purposes for which these old cultural institutions were created. And what aims and purposes the cultural institutions of today could have.

The aims of those old institutions? Those aims were part of the zeitgeist of their times. These were times of nation building, and an important part of their purpose, in all probability, was to contribute to the creation of national identity.

It’s John who says this. Joel from the City Theater ties on to this and says institutions today are often quite hollow as to any basic purpose. They sometimes aim to create a local identity, but often aim is an empty entity, he says.

Now, afterwards, I see that it was just here, in what seemed to be so tentative, that the discussion began to find its core. Aims, then, were articulated as part of the current zeitgeist. So, what does our time try to say?

Is this a point, I thought, where we can start dreaming – of institutions for our time?

In our discussion, one after the other, participants told of examples of cultural institutions they’d seen emerge. In this conversation, two points were coming into view. First, things often start spontaneously around meeting places and it’s the specific needs of individuals that make things happen. Second, when the meeting place becomes an institution, then the aims of society and the dreams or purposes of other groups begin to enter into the picture.

Miriam, studying at Kulturverkstan in Gothenburg, tells about her time at a Leeds cultural center, which started as a photo center for women in the 80s. The women needed to process their vulnerability as a serial killer raged in the city. Today, those in charge were unsure of goals and purposes. The original aims were met. Now new people were running the place. Closure or renewal were on the agenda.

Klas studies art history. He addresses an example from former Czechoslovakia, where an artist started a private, secret fictional organization, which, although it did not actually exist in reality, was discussed in closed rooms, thus gaining importance for artists who would think freely in a totalitarian system. What happens to such a phenomenon when the system has fallen?

Joel talks about the strong left-wing cultural venue Cyklopen in Högdalen, outside of Stockholm. An activity that continually challenged prevailing social patterns. The house they built was destroyed in a neo-Nazi fire attack. When Cyklopen was rebuilt, there was a discussion whether it is possible to maintain a challenging approach while you receive social support. With the support of authorities and volunteers, it was transformed into a cultural center.

Lea, who is a resident fellow at Skogen, is a choreographer working as a dancer and dance teacher in Europe. She mentions examples from Bern where informal cultural meeting places for young people with a blissful mix of young refugees, ordinary Swiss citizens, drug dealers and cultural actors somehow created an openness with an alternative ”Punk Vibe” that the city’s inhabitants like and want to protect, after all. In Berlin, similar venues try to connect with the locals to secure survival.

What are the social needs that initially create these often spontaneously emerging venues? What stated and unspoken aims are at stake when they become institutions?

In the discussion, questions like these are still in their infancy. Karl-Oskar gives them nutrition when mentioning today’s rather unobtrusive Folkets Hus movement, which started around, among other things, the need for alternative knowledge production, especially for the workers in thousands of rural and small town areas in Sweden.

I myself had one question at this point. I thought – people need to feel free to be different, to explore divergent thinking; a society needs divergent thinking, deviant thoughts in order to survive. I asked – What space and what limits are there for this in today’s new and old cultural institutions?

It’s soon time to round off this meeting. What, then, is required to know anything specific about aims and purposes in today’s multitude of cultural venues and institutions? We’ve been given hints that former cultural institutions have grown from specific needs and aspirations. Knowing the cultural aims of earlier periods means knowing the society of that time.

If that’s the case, we’ll also need to discuss what goals are prevalent in today’s cultural life. What are the unfulfilled cultural needs today? Of individuals. Of society.

And how do we know? We need to distance ourselves and consider today’s culture from an outward perspective. What cultural needs do people have today? In today’s world of change? And what does society need to continue to be a society? These may be some of the things we – we who want to dream about new institutions – need to investigate.

Ellington

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Theater Skogen in Gothenburg

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