A Melting Pot of Participative Corners

Through associations, educational establishments, institutions of all types and individual endeavours, hundreds of people have collaborated to roll out the transnational cultural platform ‘Corners of Europe’, which took place from 19 September to 2 October in San Sebastian. Diverse motives and desires have lead a varied group of volunteers to participate in this initiative, which aims to weave together cultural ‘corners’ of Europe.

Citizen participation was one of the main driving forces that created and carried out the ‘Corners of Europe’ cultural platform in the Gipuzkoa capital. “I completely identify with the project because, although I come from a Caribbean island, I’m Dutch, from a corner of Europe. I’ve collaborated on other cultural initiatives on my island, as well as in Morocco. In the end, as a volunteer, you choose projects that attract you, which you have an affinity for, and with which you identify”, explained Nanelia Walfenzo, a 44 year-old volunteer native of Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles.

Not in vain, dozens of volunteers working through different associations, educational establishments, cultural centres, private and public organisations or through individual endeavours were attracted to this cultural initiative, on which they worked selflessly. Over the course of months, and thanks to citizen collaboration, ‘Corners of Europe’ was weaved together between 19 September and 2 October, 2016 in San Sebastian within the framework of San Sebastian 2016, European Capital of Culture.

In particular, Walfenzo has spent a year in San Sebastian as a volunteer, and her work within one of the eleven projects that comprised ‘Corners of Europe’, specifically ‘Windows‘, was to accompany artists: “I was collaborating on production with choreographer and dancer Asier Zabaleta, and Irish visual artist Michael Hanna, helping them with whatever they needed, accompanying them to schools for interviews, translations…”. The project consisted of a participative performance that took place in October in a public space where neighbours as well as visitors were asked to answer various questions.

The Dutchwoman has been volunteering since the beginning of 2016 in the Capital of Culture, and attended monthly meetings where projects to be carried out were presented and discussed. “I liked this project and I signed up. Honestly, the experience has been very gratifying. In addition to being able to help, I was given the opportunity to have more in-depth knowledge about where I live, since I was able to visit some schools and understand how young people think. I learned so much, I loved it”, she emphasized. In fact, these interactions with different educational centres, as well as with neighbourhood residents, served to craft the key questions that were posed in said performance.

Participation of several centres

Since the initiative’s first moment, various centres have collaborated, as is the case with UBA Zentroa, to provide emergency shelter to minors. In the words of Ondarroa educator Jon Amallobieta, “the initial contact with the San Sebastian 2016 Consistory was made at the Olatu Talka festival in May where, together with other Loiola associations, we took part in the ‘Zubi azpiko hiria’ project”. Specifically, the initiative consisted of crafting a work team to take over a run-down space and renovate it. “The centre’s users participated actively”, the educator noted happily.

The initial synergies and good relations came to fruition in greater collaboration, and the UBA Zentroa also decided to take part in a second cultural initiative with several of its unaccompanied foreign minors. Specifically, they took part in two of the ‘Corners of Europe’ projects: ‘In Transition’ and ‘Birdhouse Gallery’.

In the first of these, the UBA Zentroa participated with five teens aged between 16 and 17. “It was a workshop made up of fifteen people from three different centres over the course of nine days. They created, rehearsed and presented a performing arts piece with musical and theatrical portions on 29 September in the Ernest Lluch Cultural Centre”, the educator explained. They also completed an intervention beyond the programme’s scope on La Concha beach.

When asked for their assessment of the experience, Amallobieta answered that “they were very pleased because they could interact in an open, creative and equal environment with local kids of their own age that live completely different realities and lives. The assessment was very positive”.

The educator also added that his users had never worked on these types of creative concepts, and that they adapted “very well”. Some of them even “sang and danced live and this creative offering surprised them, because they were not accustomed to it”, he pointed out.

If that wasn’t enough, said UBA Zentroa users could “make friends” and maintain these connections through social media: “It is very important to keep in contact with people from such distinct social realities”.

Integration in the educational system

In turn, four young people aged 13 and 14 took part in the second project, ‘Birdhouse Gallery’. “They ate in the Amara Berri school cafeteria, and then participated in the workshops over the course of nine days”, he explained. But the project was different, more individual than the first: “They created a birdcage to their own liking; it was more plastic arts work, and they also enjoyed it very much”.

With regard to their assessment, Amallobieta explained that “in the end, because of their age, these four will be integrated into the public education system, so it was very positive that, apart from the workshop, they could see what an ikastola is, they were with other children and they could live the experience”.

Along with young people and educational centres, the Deusto University in San Sebastian also collaborated on this initiative. Specifically, through several of its students, the School of Tourism participated in the ‘Amara Safari’ project together with Maria Anastassiou (England), Isabella Mongelli (Italy) and Milos Tomic (Serbia). According to Professor and Tourism Secretary Basagaitz Gereño, “the relationship with San Sebastian 2016 came first and, in this case, what we did specifically was place project’s artists in contact with our students”.

University students driving a different kind of tourism

The project aimed to craft an agency of guides that would provide people with another vision of San Sebastian’s Amara neighbourhood through contact and meetings with its neighbours and residents. This is an initiative that had already been worked on in a run-down English neighbourhood. “It seemed very interesting to us because we talk about San Sebastian and a type of tourism that is highly centred in the Old Town and City Centre. We saw that this was addressing it from another point of view, giving a twist to San Sebastian tourism”, explained Gereño.

Not in vain, within cultural tourism, there is a trend called ‘creative tourism’: “In this sense, we were very interested in starting to work with this kind of creative tourism in the city”.

On the other hand, decentralisation was another of the subjects to tackle as the Basque Government is working on the issue of tourism being excessively centralised in a few areas of San Sebastian. “We saw that the project was something that could help with this decentralisation. It was a project that was limited in time, but it was a first step, and it served to raise awareness around Amara also being an area that could attract another kind of tourism”, he argued.

Said and done. ‘Corners of Europe’ needed students that were interested in collaborating, and the university managed it: “We sent information out to all of our students, and finally four were selected to participate”. Later, they held a workshop and a work week with artists and students, then moving on to the stage in which they got to know the neighbourhood. “We were helping the artists, serving as interpreters in their interactions with neighbours, advising them, showing them where things were…”, explains Iñaki Ríos, one of the four students mentioned.

It should be noted that Ríos is from the Amara neighbourhood, and so his knowledge on the ground was a great asset for the artists: “The project fit like a glove, and it was really enriching. I liked it a lot because you don’t always have the opportunity to collaborate on a project as unique as this one”.

The result was a guided tour created out of these experiences, which he describes as “highly dynamic, fun, enjoyable, and with added value”, although he admits that he had the wrong idea about the project and therefore learned a great deal: “I was surprised, because it had much more basis than I thought at first”.

Volunteers from many different corners

In terms of the Amara neighbourhood, the university felt “inevitably” identified with the idea of Europe’s corners of culture: “I have always lived here and it was like being their host, showing them places from my childhood, my neighbourhood as a special little corner of the city”.

Artist Amaia Molinet, 28 from Lodosa, and Iera Bajo, 26 from Balmaseda, Vizcaya expressed themselves in these same terms. Both collaborated on the ‘Sister of Another Mama’ project led by Joseba Irazoki (Basque Country), Karin Lind and Simon Häggblom (Sweden) and Mila Pavicevic (Croatia): “I’m from the south of Navarra and a Basque speaker, so I also feel on that margin”, said the first, to which his friend added”: “Being from Balmaseda, the same thing happened with me, but from a different geographic and social perspective. We’re both from the ‘corners’ of the Basque Country”, they smiled.

This is the first time that Molinet and Bajo collaborated on an experience such as this one. “I wanted to participate in something a little ‘crazy’, a project with different imaginaries and disciplines; without a doubt, this has been the most enriching”, the Navarra native explained. “The truth is that I was pleasantly surprised, because I wasn’t expecting it to be so intense”, the Balmaseda native pointed out.

Once inside, they both participated in the five-day long workshops, where the artists had them complete a series of exercises to collect materials and then edit a fanzine of short stories and life-lessons. “The theme was our childhood home. We followed a series of guidelines, and little by little we started doing broader exercises”, said Bajo. “For example, when we had to draw memories from our childhood, I drew my home’s patio. I also remember that one day we went to the beach and we drew a tree, a symbol that kids always paint”, Molinet explained.

On 1 October, they finally carried out an action or performance in Tabakalera in collaboration with residents. In the Vizcaya native’s words, “it’s very enriching to bring these experiences to residents, because they see you performing, and it’s much more than theatre; it goes further. It’s great that people grow accustomed to seeing and participating in these types of things.

Eager for the future

All volunteers participating emphasized that the experience was “very positive” and that they would “participate again in the future”. Nanelia Walfenzo, for example, noted that “it was very gratifying to see that San Sebastian, the Basque Country, and Basque artists, are involved in this European project. That’s fantastic. The artists sent me a personal thank you, and I keep in contact with them. If I can continue participating in the future, I will”.

In turn, Basagaitz Gereño from Deusto University noted that “we are very interested in working on the university’s social aspect. We are interested in having Deusto’s name associated with these types of projects. We will always be eager to collaborate”.

Jon Amallobieta from UBA Zentroa has a single desire: “I hope that some of these young people keep in contact with the people they have met, and that this creates a bridge for other activities to continue smoothing over and eliminating prejudices that the community and they may have.” Ultimately, a European cultural platform that, without question, has served to bridge the empathy gap, uniting different social poles as well as fusing cultural nooks in the corners of our old, multidisciplinary European continent.