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Giving people a hearing

The city of Carlisle lies far from London, way up by the Scottish border, and many residents feel left behind or left out. A recent workshop asked: What is isolation really and how can it be overcome? And above all: How can project ideas from two very different cities fit together if one side has a spectacular art exhibition in mind and the other, more concretely socio-political, seeks to give people a hearing who feel their voices aren’t being heard? A report on the rather tricky, but very exciting, launch of a Freiraum project.

By Uwe Rada

Let’s say Görlitz, Germany’s easternmost city, had a station where intercity express trains from Berlin or Dresden stop every hour on their way to Wrocław. Let’s also imagine Görlitz was the site of a university and a tourist centre for Germany's largest national park. The historic city centre would be teeming with little shops and chic boutiques, the cafés would be full, lots of young people hanging out, there’d be a contemporary art gallery and plenty of civic engagement. If such were its fate, would Görlitzers feel left out or left behind, abandoned by the rest of the country and Berlin, their capital?
With a population of 70,000, Carlisle is roughly the same size as Görlitz (60,000). It’s the northernmost city in England, with Virgin Trains bound for and from London every hour, taking 3 hours 15 minutes each way – a little less than from Berlin to Görlitz, where you have to change trains in Cottbus anyway. Over 12,000 students are enrolled in the University of Cumbria, and the nearby Lake District, Britain's largest national park, receives over 18 million tourists a year. The city is spruce and extremely lively. And yet people in Carlisle feel left behind. At least that’s what is suggested by the question Carlisle put to their partners from the Greek city of Thessaloniki in the Goethe-Institut’s Freiraum project. "How can we understand and overcome isolation."

People taking part in a discussion Photo: Adam Burakowski © Goethe-Institut
Frozen sheep on borderlands: A sense of being left behind

Leaving Carlisle’s spruce centre and walking up Castle Way to the River Caldew in suburban Caldewgate, you can tell this used to be an industrial hub in an otherwise agricultural area. It was the railway that brought industry to the north of England in the 19th century, to the Borderlands, as many still call this area today, what with the Scottish border only 16 kilometres away. To this day, Hadrian's Wall, built in the 2nd century AD to protect the Roman province of Britannia Inferior from the Scots and the Irish, still marks the border. Carlisle means "city by the wall" in Scottish Gaelic.
People living in border towns like Carlisle and Görlitz, far from the capital, sometimes develop a keen sense of whether they are getting the attention they need from the powers that be. No, they’re not, said local artists and activists at a March 2018 workshop held by the neighbourhood association Awaz Cumbria. They gathered in Caldewgate at the Shaddongate Resource Centre, which houses a great many local initiatives and organizations. In the cramped conference room there, Aftab Khan of Awaz Cumbria brought up Carlisle's question again, pointing out that isolation is partly a question of self-perception and not just statistical parameters. One workshop participant recalled the snowstorm in early March that brought train traffic in Northern England to a standstill. A number of villages in the mountains of the Lake District were cut off from the outside world. "People there had to be supplied by helicopter, countless sheep froze or starved to death," she reported. People there felt they’d been left to their own devices – and London might not have even noticed.
Isolation is not an issue in Thessaloniki, Carlisle's partner in the Freiraum project. People in this port city on the Thermaic Gulf may complain that most of the money spent on the 2004 Olympics went to Athens, but Thessaloniki is Greece's second biggest city, so it’s anything but left out. The city was once home to many different cultures and religions: Jews, Turks and Greeks have lived here. This diverse history is still a source of pride in Thessaloniki today.
So it’s going to be exciting when Christos Savvidis of ArtBOX Creative Arts Management in Thessaloniki comes to Carlisle in late April. What does isolation mean to him? And what ideas might he have for overcoming it? What did he think a Brexit stronghold would be like? Abandoned factories, homeless people on every street corner, violence?

Splendid isolation or a curse? It’s a matter of self-perception

Similar questions were thrashed out at the workshop in March. "What is isolation anyway?" asked one participant, taking up Carlisle’s question in the Freiraum project. "Shouldn't the question really be whether there is any contradiction between isolation and freedom?" Because up here in the northernmost reaches of England, far from the all-engulfing vortex of the nation’s capital, there’s plenty of splendid isolation to be found in Carlisle as well: unspoilt nature, breathable air, a wonderfully romantic coastline. Isolation doesn’t just mean being left behind or left out, says Katrin Sohns, head of the Northwestern Europe Culture Department at the Goethe-Institut in London, who, like Nikolai Petersen, director of the institute in Glasgow, attended the second workshop in Carlisle. "There is also splendid isolation," says Sohns, "a mindful life away from the centre."
In contrast to northern Sweden or Finland, where many residents treasure their remoteness, people in the county of Cumbria, whose administrative hub is Carlisle, perceive it as a problem, as a sense of not really belonging. And this sense of unjust exclusion occasionally gives rise to bizarre reactions. In 2005, after foot-and-mouth disease broke out in Cumbria and the city was flooded after days of rainfall, some residents blamed their misfortunes on a work of art. A few years earlier, the city council had commissioned a local artist to produce a stone sculpture for the millennium celebrations. He inscribed a granite boulder, which was placed in an underpass in the city, with part of a 1,069-word curse proclaimed by the Archbishop of Glasgow back in 1525 to protect the city against constant pillaging by the so-called border reivers. The “curse of the Cursing Stone” soon came to be blamed for the calamities that befell present-day Carlisle. One city councillor even wanted it removed. A provincial farce, to be sure, but one that says a lot about how a province ticks.
There are still some jobs in Carlisle at industrial companies such as tyre manufacturer Pirelli and the various administrative offices of the county of Cumbria. But the statistics presented by Aftab Kahn at the Shaddongate Resource Centre speak for themselves. At £23,000 a year, the average household income here is lower than the national English average of £28,500. Life expectancy is also below the national average, and over 16 percent of Carlisle’s children live in poverty. Nevertheless – or for these very reasons – a large majority of the population of Carlisle voted for Brexit in 2016: 60.1% voted "Leave", only 39.9% wanted to "Remain".
And that’s one reason the Goethe-Instituts in London and Glasgow took an interest in this Brexiteer stronghold on the Anglo-Scottish border. "We started researching and came across Carlisle," Glasgow’s director Nikolai Petersen recalls during the workshop. Carlisle was chosen as the location for the Freiraum project in the UK not only on account of the preponderance of Leavers, however, but also on the strength of its civil society activities. "We found out that a Unity Festival is held there every year," says Petersen. This is how the Goethe-Institut found Aftab Khan, whose community organization, Awaz Cumbria, puts on the Unity Festival, a showcase for Carlisle’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

Spelling out and allaying unfounded fears, gaining a hearing

In Awaz Cumbria, the Freiraum project has found partners who are less active in the arts than in neighbourhood outreach work. "We are committed to the rights of national minorities and the disadvantaged," Aftab Kahn said at the workshop. The organization was founded by Peter Foley, the UK's first black professional footballer, who also came to the meeting at the Shaddongate Resource Centre. Khan himself is from the fiercely contested province of Kashmir in Pakistan. After the great earthquake of 2005 he organized the region’s reconstruction, but fell afoul of the authorities, so he went to England in 2007 to study there. And stayed. He’s crazy about Carlisle and Cumbria, where he has found a new mission.
People taking part in a discussion Photo: Adam Burakowski © Goethe-Institut Khan readily admits that minorities make up a smaller proportion of the population in Carlisle than in other parts of Britain. "Black residents and other ethnic minorities make up 5.6 per cent of the population, and only 4.9 per cent in County Cumbria," he says. So the white electorate’s fear of being marginalized by minorities, which has fuelled the rise of right-wing populism in many places in Europe, is hardly justified in Carlisle – at least not statistically.
With this in mind, some of the participants in Awaz Cumbria's workshop don’t see the isolation and distance from London as their biggest problem. "Maybe the question needs to be more precise," said an artist who works with young people here. "Maybe it's because many people have the impression their voices aren’t being heard. We need to give these people a voice again." In four groups they then discussed how to help one another and how to get local actors involved. They also talked about the artistic project to be developed in response to the Freiraum question. What form should it take? How should the result be presented? What would go down well? And above all: Who benefits from it?

Freiraum project: A spectacular exhibition about social justice?

Aftab Khan now faces a formidable challenge. Carlisle supporters of his efforts and of Awaz Cumbria in the Freiraum project are expecting concrete suggestions for improvements to the situation on the ground, whether it be called isolation or not. But Christos Savvidis, the Goethe-Institut’s artistic partner in Thessaloniki, already has a concrete project in mind: namely an exhibition, and one that’s as professional and as spectacular as possible. The two sides have found a common denominator in a commitment to make the voices of the disadvantaged heard. "Voice pieces by residents of Carlisle, as well as of Thessaloniki, should be heard in the exhibition," he suggests to Aftab in one of several Skype conferences.
In response to Carlisle’s isolation problem, the professional artists at Thessaloniki’s ArtBOX have proposed to Carlisle’s Aftab Khan a format he can hardly say no to. But the Greek partners in Thessaloniki might also now take up the issue of minorities and social justice that is so crucial to Aftab Khan and his Awaz Cumbria NGO. Savvidis would probably also subscribe to Khan's description of the goal of his efforts: "We must give the disadvantaged access to education, social services and health care. Only when they have all this can they benefit from the freedom that others take for granted."
Carlisle’s concerns have also been heard by the Goethe-Institut Glasgow. "We are currently considering putting on a film festival in Carlisle," announces Nikolai Petersen, head of the institute in Glasgow. After all, the Freiraum to be created in Carlisle ought to be sustainable.