Culture at the Centre: Four stances of the four portuguese cities bidding to become European Capital of Culture

After Lisbon (1994), Porto (2001) and Guimarães (2012), 2027 is the year in which a Portuguese city will once again become European Capital of Culture (ECoC). To nurture a common cultural space, highlighting the cultural features shared by Europeans and the varied richness of practices, knowledge and customs, being named ECoC allows the chosen city the opportunity to open up its cultural development to the world, establishing its identity and increasing international visibility. It is also an opportunity to generate social and economic benefits capable of unlocking its full potential.

After a first selection, four Portuguese cities – Aveiro, Braga, Évora and Ponta Delgada – are having their programmes analysed until a final decision is made between December 2022 and January 2023. I have submitted four questions to these bids, as they strive and motivate themselves, perfecting cultural standpoints and commitments to become catalysts and cradles for the celebration of Portuguese art and culture. An ambition that will not only happen in 2027, but that is now inevitably expanding; this is already an expressive point of no return open to multiple and infinite futures.

Mafalda Ruão – Why does Aveiro/Braga/Évora/Ponta Delgada need to be the ECoC?

Aveiro – Aveiro has an ongoing Strategic Plan for Culture, which started in 2019 and ends in 2030. The project wants to optimise Aveiro’s potential, placing culture alongside other fields where the city and the region stand out. With this plan, the goal is to have a greater involvement and participation of citizens and institutions in culture, a greater empowerment of the whole society, new readings on identity, fixing the population in the territory and attracting new agents, as well as diversifying and strengthening the artistic sector. Aveiro’s bid to ECoC is one of the stages of the Strategic Plan for Culture. It is important but it is not the foundation of the process; the scope of the Plan goes much further. Only a long term and detailed action will allow Aveiro to have the role it deserves in this sector.

Braga – Braga faces challenges similar to those of other European cities, where rapid urbanisation based on economic growth has given rise to an unbalanced relationship with nature, compromising the citizens’ quality of life. When we took on this bid and questioned the locals about their most urgent needs, the common problems were the lack of infrastructures to support well-being (mobility, green spaces, public spaces), weaker community dynamics and low civic energy, as well as the lack of a collective vision and will. These issues are even more urgent in a scenario where, unlike other Portuguese cities, but like so many in Europe, our population is increasing. Braga is facing an accelerated multicultural transformation, stimulated by the significant number of Brazilian citizens arriving in the city every year, and by the growing number of residents and students of other nationalities. This makes us face the latest challenge, along with many other European cities: the mounting housing shortage. Although this problem affects citizens from all social strata, we cannot ignore the impact on our youth. In 1989, Braga was considered the youngest city in Europe and, although a quarter of our population is under 25 years of age, there is a gradual change in demographic trends. We face a potential brain drain, especially in the cultural and creative sector. In addition, recent studies have revealed that this age group has been affected by the pandemic crisis, with the exacerbation of mental health issues.

Évora – Maybe people don’t know, but the Alentejo represents one third of Portugal. It is a huge territory, with great wealth, visible in its historical, political and social past, in its people and present. Évora being an ECoC, and also the Alentejo, will reposition the city and the region, and will change the importance of this territory for the country and Europe. The ECoC should be an opportunity for positive transformation, which, by putting culture at the centre, will allow cities to regenerate and raise their international profile. The impact is profound and goes far beyond creating a new cultural dynamic. Through culture, we are working and transforming several fields, such as education, economy, mobility, inclusion, health, urban planning, among other aspects relevant to people’s lives.

Ponta Delgada – Ponta Delgada is the main Azorean city in demography and economy, but it reflects the main challenges of the region: poverty and social vulnerability. The appreciation of culture is an important tool to tackle this, through investment in a cultural and creative sector that is professionalised and trained.

This bid covers an archipelago in which cultural investment has been made through the construction of facilities that often end up empty or underused. Despite the increase in cultural supply, the territorial distribution is not equitable, in a region where accessibility is deficient.

Culture should not be a centralized or centralizing movement, but should stimulate dialogue with all the areas surrounding the city. In Ponta Delgada, this movement is necessary in cultural, human and social terms, because it is the urban fabric of an island that needs to be developed together. We are motivated by the right to participate and have access to cultural and artistic practices. To get involved is to break down physical and geographical barriers, to revive the European collective spirit, through the coming together of the islands, cultural democracy and the identification of the different resident communities with culture.

MR – What can Aveiro/Braga/Évora/Ponta Delgada offer to improve European culture? 

Aveiro – Aveiro has a unique history, the result of its relationship with the environment and its raw materials. Throughout the centuries, the region’s identity has been moulded in a resilient, pioneering, stimulating, creative path, open to the world, with ongoing technological evolution. These characteristics are part of Aveiro genetic code and are visible in its distinct cultural manifestations. These are the traits which have been worked on in Aveiro’s bid to become the ECoC. We believe that we can contribute to the history that all Europeans share, from our specific viewpoint. The ECoC is an extraordinary opportunity to bring together local communities around a common vision for Aveiro’s future, interdependent on the European future. Over the centuries, the citizens of Aveiro have known how to create and recreate this unique and amphibious geography, exploiting the fertility of the soils of the Vouga River delta and the abundance of the Atlantic Ocean. Fishing, salt, wind and ceramics have made this community prosper and build a future. If we analyse Aveiro’s DNA, we conclude that the four elements – Earth, Water, Air and Fire – have shaped the city’s existence.

Braga – In the last decade Braga has developed its investment in culture. The city has venues and events that are a national and international reference. However, our ambition with the ECoC bid process is to make a joint reflection, not only in Braga, but in all Europe, about how we live today in small and medium-sized cities. And how we can claim the time we need to take care of our body and mind. Braga’s ancestral connection with religion and spirituality has opened the way for reflection on our well-being and how this relates to life in society, with nature, with the time we dedicate to leisure activities, particularly cultural ones. Braga can make this questioning, awaken this will to look inside ourselves and seek what is less well, less settled. And we can take advantage of this distinction to start a transformation that goes beyond the city limits and contaminates the entire European continent.

Évora – We believe that our proposal has much to offer not only to European culture, but to the world. We start from Vagar (Portuguese word to describe Alentejo’s quintessential and ancestral way of living, which may be translated as slowness, idling), something that inspires us, and we want to make that a challenge for Humanity. We believe that this way of being and living has many questions and answers to the challenges we face – climate change, migration, waste, threats to democracy. Although ancestral, we believe that slowness is the urgent answer for the future. Originating in Évora and the Alentejo, it has many declinations to which we must be attentive, and which we want to illuminate in this process. I’m thinking of the connections of slowness to the New European Bauhaus and the Green Deal, for example.

The Alentejo’s slowness is not sluggishness or laziness. It is the awareness that the human is always in relation with the surroundings, with time, with space, with the universe. Therefore, it is coexistence, coevolution, creation and construction. It questions the predominance of the human. And, from this place of reflection, we can build the world we want. In Portugal, in Europe and on a global scale, slowness as the construction of a new wave for Humanity.

Ponta Delgada – Ponta Delgada wants to run for ECoC because this is where Europe is made whole – in balance with nature and time (chronological and meteorological). We want to promote Europe’s cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding between European citizens. Our concept covers essential issues of the European reality such as isolation, migration, the relationship between different times (past, present and future) and the climate emergency. We propose a reflection on centrality and periphery, the path to regeneration and a new daily rhythm. In all these paths, we want to promote intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding, something we are already used to as a region of emigrants and immigrants (with over 100 nationalities), and cooperation as a form of cultural democracy and collective learning.

MR – What are the most particular and distinctive narratives of the Aveiro/Braga/Évora/Ponta Delgada bid?

Aveiro – In a territory where exposure to the elements is so evident, literally and symbolically, the Aveiro 2027 project had as its theme the 5th Element. Since Ancient Greece, in the heart of Europe, it has been considered that the universe is composed of four basic elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. In medieval times, alchemists spoke of the fifth element and its transforming effect. In this project, Aveiro chose Culture as the Fifth Element. The basic idea is that culture is the ingredient for a more sustainable, democratic, cohesive and resilient future. The ECoC will be that catalyst and the citizens of Aveiro the alchemists of transformation. Culture is what gives meaning to the combination of elements and opens doors to a process of civic discovery. It adds identity to the city, allows it to renew itself, and stimulates a revolution in the creation of places and a sense of belonging. In the past, the four elements led to economic growth. Today, the four elements focus on environmental sustainability, social inclusion, tolerance and justice. This is a cultural change: what we value and need for a better society and a sustainable future.

Braga – The concept of Braga’s bid is “Time for Contemplation”. We believe that contemplative societies and communities can establish a new awareness for a more inclusive, just and sustainable Europe. Braga’s history and its built landscape are deeply rooted in faith in religion and, as a consequence, in spirituality. The latter is simply the opportunity to (re)encounter fundamental human questions. Individually and collectively. Braga’s current challenges are reflected all over Europe and the world. The healing of our collective wounds requires joint reflection and shared efforts. It is the moment for an intentional reconnection with ourselves, with others and with the place we inhabit.

Évora – At the heart of this bid is slowness. We believe it can generate new narratives that humanity so desperately needs. We look at slowness like a diamond, with multiple sides. It is a resigned and empowered slowness that can change the world. The disruptive moments we have experienced have forced and accelerated an awareness of change. We believe that the living practices we find in the Alentejo – zero waste, slow food, self-restraint, among others – are a huge contribution to the discussion, but also to the action we need to take. I’m talking about the relationship of coexistence between nature, animal and human that we have in the Alentejo Montado, the relationship with waste, collective practices, know-how, the relationship with space and time, earth and sky. We believe that this bid renews the whole discourse that the Alentejo can develop for itself, for the country and the world.

Ponta Delgada – In 2027, we will celebrate the 600th anniversary of the discovery of these islands. The Azores represent a young culture on the “old continent”, born out of the confrontation between the different cultures that have inhabited the archipelago. A consequence of isolation and insularity, besides being a place of experimentation, the Azores preserved many of the practices and customs that were lost elsewhere. This is a meeting place, at a point where three continental plates are in contact – the European, American and African. Ponta Delgada’s bid – Azores 2027 adds the Atlantic aspect to the ECoC project.

Beyond geography, this project has nine cultures, all with strong and common identity links, but all different. It is our intention to celebrate each one, but also to challenge and expand them, always keeping in mind the dimension and specificities of each island. We want to share an archipelagic thought, an alternative model to global thinking, based on the exchange between islands, which does not cause the loss of identity, but enriches it.

For Aveiro

MR – Nature is the second topic mentioned in your identity. The bid uses several images of animals and the Aveiro lagoon to visually communicate. How will you include nature in your cultural activities? And what will be the benefits for the environment of this bid?

Aveiro – Considering the geographical location, the relationship with natural elements is inevitable for Aveiro. Nature has both been seen as a threat and an inspiration, in a game of forces which still exists today, and which climate change will make increasingly felt – if the level of the oceans rises, this effect will clearly be experienced in Aveiro. Therefore, there are several proposals in Aveiro 2027’s cultural programme about nature, sustainability, solutions for the future and a deep reflection on this subject. Each of the bid’s four elements will have guidelines, with many possibilities. 

For Braga

MR – Empathy, Contemplation, Action are three keywords in the bid. How can this trio shape the city and a “fast-culture” world, in ultra-quick and constant transformation?

Braga – That is the order. We start with empathy, the ability to relate to others, privileging dialogue and inclusion. By using collaborative practices, with dynamics of proximity and integration, we pave the way for contemplation. Contemplation is the ability to stop and look more attentively at what surrounds us and at what is inside us. Finally, we come to understand that, after empathy and contemplation, we are ready to act. To act in the desired change, not only in Braga’s society and culture, but also in today’s European society and culture.

For Évora

MR – Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986 could be an asset for the bid or will it give the idea that the city will not need to be an ECoC, as it is already internationally recognized?

Évora – The Support Guide for Candidate Cities indicates that this is not a UNESCO or Tourism bid. All cities are on an equal footing. The expert panel hopes to see in the application dossier a transformative approach to the future of a city, according to the ECoC principles. In this bid, the UNESCO status should not be seen as a banner, but as food for thought for the city’s future. The UNESCO status raises important questions about the daily lives of those who live and visit Évora’s historic centre. And also questions about energy sustainability, even leading to contradictions in many areas. This dimension is indeed relevant for the transformation of a city. 

For Ponta Delgada

MR – At a time when it is urgent to minimize humanity’s impact on the environment, decolonizing nature, what does the slogan “Our nature is human” mean?

Ponta Delgada – “Our nature is human” is a slogan that reflects the main concept of this bid: a re-signification of “Human Nature”. In our proposal, Nature means place, Human means culture. This concept explores the relationship between culture and the place where it arises. More than that, it illustrates how humanity and culture, in constant change, have shaped this place. Our motto gives voice to our desire for symbiosis between human and non-human life forms. It also presents our vision for what the ECoC should be: a tolerant and welcoming space, which embraces and celebrates diversity and uniqueness. As a species, we are not perfect.

As a city, island and archipelago, we are not perfect. As Europe, we are not perfect. Yet we remain open to working in new, possible worlds.

Aveiro 2027 had José Pina, responsible for the bid, as spokesperson.

Braga 2027 had as spokesperson the Braga’27 mission team.

Évora 2027 had Paula Garcia, responsible for the coordination of the bid, as spokesperson.

Ponta Delgada – Azores 2027 had the bid team as spokesperson.

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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