Aleksi Malmberg: Art isn’t supposed to be safe. What about experiencing it?
  • 828x555px_sotilaita_kuva_Pirita_Männikkö
25 November 2015

I have been told that, ever since the French revolution, Paris has tended to view Brussels with slight suspicion, seeing it as a breeding ground for civil unrest. With the terrorist attacks of 13 November, a sombre new chapter was written into the 200-year-old narrative. Everyday life has been turned on its head and dark shadows loom large above us. The main suspects are Belgian nationals. The Molenbeek district, despite the protestations of its diverse community, is now synonymous with this new form of terror in Europe.

Brussels was placed under the highest terror alert level on Saturday. The city’s schools, nurseries, universities, shopping centres, libraries, metro system, markets, playgrounds and cemeteries remained closed for four days. Some museums are still shut and large-scale public events are being cancelled, notably the European Culture Forum, the European Commission’s bi-annual flagship cultural event, scheduled for this week.

The majority of the city’s restaurants are continuing to operate as normal but, in the centre in particular, they are not attracting much custom – the people of Brussels may not be frightened but they are bewildered and wary.

The response of the country’s leadership to the attacks has been unanimous and, so far, there appears to be a fairly broad consensus that the drastic decisions taken in response to the attacks have been necessary. Although the matter will likely be debated for a long time to come, it seems that the authorities have succeeded in preventing another serious terrorist atrocity, possibly several. This is excellent.

I have experience of organising hundreds of events myself – in private homes and public halls, in markets, on the streets. They have ranged from theatre performances for an audience of ten to stadium concerts broadcast live on television. Although on a practical level as an organiser you are of course focused on meeting the expectations of your audience and the performers, your primary duty at all times is to ensure the safety of everyone present.

While it may be impossible to eliminate risk entirely, how do we define “safe enough”? Even now, despite the daily bombardments, an art gallery in Aleppo, Syria continues to open its doors and invite people in. Our perception of what constitutes normal, of what is ”enough”, varies between individuals and depends on the prevailing circumstances under which we live. Gilles Ledure, director of the Flagey Arts Centre in Brussels recently said that, under these exceptional circumstances, ”he has to be able to demonstrate that they have done everything within their power”. But if our fundamental trust in our fellow humans is lost, no special measures, no precautions will ever be enough.

There is a view that people suffering from depression see the world in a far more realistic light than those who are not affected by it – the positivity bias protects us from paralysis at the face of adversity. The same is also true of societies; we all need a healthy, shared pair of rose tinted glasses to uphold trust. Despite the status of emergency continuing, we must not allow depression to prevail in Brussels.

One measure of a stable society is how quickly it can return to normal, to reinstate trust, following an emergency. What is it that we now need to do to make sure ordinary everyday life can resume? Karine Lalieux, the alderwoman responsible for cultural affairs in Brussels, has already decided to re-open all city council-run museums and was among the first in the city to do so. The restoration of life to the city, the re-building of mutual trust following a clear and acute threat is the prism through which to evaluate the success of the actions now being taken in Brussels. The arts and culture sector have an important role to play in this.

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Aleksi Malmberg

© Pirita Männikkö

Aleksi Malmberg is the Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux.

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