More than culture

manifesto of the Belarusian cultural field
Why invest in culture? Because what killed communism was the Beatles, jeans and Coca-Cola. And there is more truth in this formula than it might seem at first.

The essence of the question is in understanding how culture works and why it is needed.

Its three banal interpretations - museum, entertainment, agitation resource - have one thing in common: the perception of culture as a tool to control the masses. In this case, culture is initially insignificant and secondary. It is an instrument of power, and makes sense only as an application to politics with the economy: as a service to power interests, devoid of independent weight and separate history.

From this point of view, strategically investing in culture is really ridiculous. It is easier to invest in politicians and subjects of the economic field.

But precisely because of the underestimation of the meaning and role of cultural work, Belarus has turned into a collective-farm dictatorship with an undeveloped political alternative, an intimidated electorate, an emergency migration of creative elites, and cultural terror as the main resource for fostering loyalty. And, unfortunately, such a threat today can concern not only post-Soviet Belarus, but also any other country that has not built defensive redoubts from totalitarianism and authoritarianism which attack the world.

The service-instrumental interpretation of culture seems to be deeply erroneous. Since it removes an extremely important element from the functionality of the cultural field - its diverse and ambiguous creativity; the daily work of a nation in search of itself. The ability to act independently of decrees and orders. The gift to create new cultural matrices, cultural practices and values.

It is important to understand that there is no "separate" culture with clear and distinct boundaries. Any fact of our reality - from a private coffee shop to an avant-garde ballet - has a cultural dimension. Every action has cultural weight.

Culture in all its diversity is not just a block of messages, a package of texts, a set of values, living standards and a collection of artifacts. These are forms of social action through which the nation is occupied with its self-determination. And, more importantly, a resource of self-organization. What and who we allow ourselves to be.

The culture of a nation is a set of exercises in identity. Therefore, the protection of culture is more than support for education and the culture industry. This is the defense of national sovereignty and mental independence.

For a post-colonial "small" nation, supporting culture is essentially a matter of life and death. Since the pop-cultural, media and intellectual interventions of the “Russian world”, in the absence of opposition, are actively turning a formally independent power into a province of a neighbouring empire.

A normal ecosystem of culture operates in a mode of constant conceptual search, critical expertise, rotation of personnel, interaction between different levels of cultural production, struggle for the consumer, playing with context and semantic renewal. But today it is no longer about Belarus.

The modern Belarusian cultural situation is a hybrid of the total bureaucratization of state institutions, the forceful cleansing of the cultural field, state cultural terror and the crisis-emergency regime of the work of creative elites. Belarusian culture actually lives on the ruins of the former cultural order, and functions as a collection of its fragments. And this is, in fact, the first sign of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Because from where culture does not work, sooner or later tanks will come.

There can be no healthy culture in a sick society. But even with a sick culture, society cannot be healthy. And due to the fact that the Belarusian culture found itself in a unique situation of actual expulsion from the country, it is forced to adjust both its strategy and tactics, and its mission.

It is obvious that today Belarusian culture and art, having spread both within Belarus and beyond its borders, have gone beyond the mere creation of cultural products. They were responsible for maintaining the integrity of the Belarusian cultural field, albeit geographically divided. At the same time, having shown itself in recent years as a “cement” that unites and holds together various subjects of the political field and civil society, Belarusian culture has assumed the status of “more than culture”.

By investing in culture, we support social responsibility and civic activism.

We destroy the banal division into "creators" and "consumers". We invest in the right to creative self-determination and equal opportunities for personal growth. We uphold the right to life; on the choice of the future and the freedom of creativity.

In essence, we are talking about the resuscitation of the nation. It's more than culture.

How to work with the creative resource left in the territory occupied by the regime? With a clear understanding of the urgency of the situation and the extremely limited opportunities for demonstrating dissent in the country. Through the development of a system of creative mobility (collaborations and field projects), the arrangement of the space of a new cultural underground and intellectual partisanship. With a clear understanding that collective security is above all, and human life is an unconditional priority.

In fact, we get two key dimensions of the new unified Belarusian culture: legal public field creativity and hidden cultural resistance in the country itself. The task of the near future is to sew both of these trends into a common field of virtual mobile Belarusian culture.

The geopolitical alignments of two past centuries no longer correspond to the realities of the new informational and cultural order. Network communication works across borders and censorship barriers. Much more important is not an ideological, but a qualitative gap - a semantic and functional division into an inertial-secondary self-repetition (regardless of location and choice of political position); and the actively innovative culture-activism of the New Europeans.

Where is the perspective? To build not a niche platform for the “perpetually offended”, but to grow open, dynamic, open-minded and capable of becoming convertible. Not cultural bureaucrats, but new actors in the global cultural market.

What to invest in? To a shared better future.

The strategic goal is to overcome the double inhibition - the Lukashist inertial "stability" and the culture shock of the "lost revolution". Both of these cultural situations have exhausted themselves.

The general task is not to save, but to allow development, creating conditions for constant growth. Not targeted subsidies and forced administration, but a restart of cultural dynamics; it is also the foundation of the self-organization of civil society.

Of fundamental importance is the rejection of the paternalistic and consumerist approach to cultural processes. It should be about creating not “new ministries”, but new rules of existence – an environment favorable for the self-organization of creative communities. Not a vertical of power subordination, but a horizontal network of project structures and creative alliances.

The task is to create a new cycle that exists in culturally developed countries, but has not yet developed for objective reasons in Belarus. Training and retraining of artists / education of the public / public promotion / system expertise, etc. But, with one important feature, due to the unique state of the Belarusian cultural field: with a growing influence on adjacent fields - political, social and economic.

Accordingly, this requires a number of updates:
a) constant and regular expert assessment of the current state of the Belarusian cultural field at all levels - from strategic to situational-tactical: personnel, concepts, channels, vectors of development;
b) turning the results into public materials, training courses and research texts / monographs / online resources.
New filters of meanings and quality
An international pool of experts with regular work at competitions, tenders, pitchings, etc. for Belarusian applicants.
Strategic project support
Systematic long-term investments in cultural construction without hard deadlines and quick results (“long money”) - support for the infrastructure of the cultural ecosystem: foundations, institutions, soym, creative platforms, industry communities.
Competitive financing of short-term projects of various weights and levels (“quick money”) - building a competitive environment with tight deadlines, concrete results, a clear selection system and screening out low-quality products.
Personnel development, internships, seminars, residences - with indispensable work for a calculated and worthy result. Acceleration course: growing projects through facilitating their access to experts, collaborations and finance.
New connections
A line of international and interdisciplinary collaborations. Active use of expert resources of diasporas.
New canon
Creating a quality bar through top competition in all major segments of the cultural field - investing in iconic and flagship products and milestone texts.
The fundamental feature of the Belarusian situation is a country without a country: work in the mode of decentralized migrant creativity.

The main meaning-forming cultural structures - theatres, publishing houses, musical communities, media projects, analytical groups - today operate outside state borders. But the dispersion of human and technical resources across countries and continents is just an additional argument in favour of abandoning stereotyped steps and yesterday's decisions.

No country means we are forming not a stationary cultural environment, but a team of mobile transnational players who are able to work with other people's local cultural fields. We are making transitive creativity - not closed emigrant zones, but a network of dynamic diasporas with a good growth resource.

Not breaks, but mounting glues. Not things, but meanings and possibilities.

Belarusian culture is irreversibly turning into an international enterprise and a global project. The country is us; the country is where we are.

You can build Belarus wherever there are Belarusians - not to close yourself in local ghettos, but to enable international collaborations.

What are we building? Not the nostalgically dusty "Brighton Beach", but a lively competitive environment - the working segment of the global field; zone of European communications and joint creative projects; mobile belarusianness; flexible identity.

It's okay to be different. And arguments are important. And it's good to disagree. And the struggle for resources is natural. And Belarus is not an alibi and not a sign of quality.

The main enemy is not where the people mistakenly imagined him for several decades - this is not Lukashenka's "cardboard" regime, but people's own inertia, the habit of a strong hand and a passionate love for the power vertical.

The new culture will end where and when someone manages to lead it.
More than culture, it is social activism through creative practices: the design of a post-totalitarian nation.
Maksim Žbankoŭ and Mikałaj Chalezin feat.
Nadzieja Zielankova
This text was written within the creation process of the Roadmap for the Belarusian Culture Support.
© 2024 Belarusian Counsil for Culture. All rights reserved.