ELS 2018: Creative Cities Beyond Black Rock City

By Elsa Snellman

It’s been two days since most of the participants in the 2018 Burning Man European Leadership Summit (ELS) left Nantes. The dust in our host venue Les Machines de L’île is starting to settle. To give our wider community a little glimpse of what actually took place at the fifth annual ELS, I’d like to share some of the lessons learned from one of the breakout sessions, which was about creative cities.

The session gathered a huge crowd — no surprise, as the ELS audience comes from cities such as Moscow, Tallinn, Berlin, and Jerusalem — just to name a few!

Hosted by Burning Man Art & Civic Engagement Director Kim Cook, the conversation featured Charles Landry, father of the current thinking about the concept of creative cities, and Maud Le Floch, who introduced some of her work with Polau des Artes Urbaines. The conversation revolved around creativity and its cultural impact: What can a Burner community do to make positive societal change through creative expression? What kind of civic engagement works best, and where?

ELS 2018 (Photo by Hervé)

European Burners come from a variety of locations both geographically and culturally. Some people may worry about the effect the Guggenheim Art Museum may have on their local creative scene; others worry about governmental relations going sour over a takeover of an urban space for a civic creativity project. What they all have in common is the will for creative civic engagement on the grassroots level. Even if Black Rock City connects many of them, they are driven by their own local communities.

Quoting Charles Landry (unsurprisingly, because I’m a huge fan): “In the world of dramatic change, how does one create new opportunities to imagine and to create new things?”

Creativity is an endless resource. One can work creatively with both the old and the new; one can reframe new contexts in an agile way, while recognizing the value of the old. You can see this in Nantes, France where the ELS was hosted. The city is full of both medieval wonders and futurist, brutalist school campuses; the city of abandoned dock harbors and dreamlike creatures (like our dear, dear elephant). Nantes is a creative city effectively combining innovation with local heritage.

Les Machines’ awesome elephant (Photo by Hervé)

Eva, Elo and Ivo

…and so is Tallinn!

Estonia, a Northern country known for both its UNESCO World Heritage old town and one of the most effective e-governments in the world, unsurprisingly also boasts a lively, energetic Burner community. The Estonian community was naturally present at ELS in great numbers. We had the chance to dive a bit deeper into a lively conversation with the Estonian Burners about Tallinn as an example of creative civic engagement and Tallinn as a creative city.

The Estonian community first organized about seven years ago from the collective wish to celebrate life, music and dancing. Their parties took place in nature — which Estonia has plenty of, wild and raw — and drew a variety of Estonian creatives from many walks of life.

Eva joined the community seven years ago. She was a Burner who felt at home in the creative community she had just encountered. In 2014, Eva, Elo and Ivo, the Estonian ELS participants this year, finally took a trip to Black Rock City together. Ever since, the community has been in a creative flow.

Mural drawing at ELS 2018 (Photo by Hervé)

They recently found a permanent creative space, which is really important for the community, as they want to be able to offer everyone a canvas for any kind of creative activity. Everyone can bring in what they want to share and offer, be it knowledge, creativity, or some epic dance moves! It is easier to increase civic engagement and be an effective actor in public conversation with permanent, urban space.

They have also just introduced their first art grants, and they’ve been engaging the Estonian Academy of Arts to get involved in their annual Bling festival, which takes place at the peak of the midsummer celebrations. The Burners and the Academy found a common language, agreed on a collaboration, and the Academy created a special creative subject in their academic curriculum in the process. The interaction with the Burner community is inspiring the Estonian academic community to think in a different way. In Estonia, a country of bright minds and minuscule land mass, it’s important to foster these kinds of creative collaborations. As Charles Landry said, whole is more than the bits.

Session at ELS 2018 (Photo by Hervé)

The ELS in Nantes has been hugely significant for the Estonian community. After the trip, Ivo, Eva and Elo plan to think about new approaches and ideas on how to create new creative spaces, both temporary and permanent. Tallinn is only going to become a more awesome place to visit. The Estonian team has their sights set on hosting the ELS in 2020 and are already thinking of ways to showcase their creative culture to participants from around the world.


Top photo by Hervé

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