Zoe Bulaitis reports back from the 2019 ECHIC Conference in Athens
The European Consortium for Humanities Institutes And Centres’ (ECHIC) annual conference offers a space for scholars to share key research activities and methods of advocacy concerning the value of the humanities in the twenty-first century. Following a string of successful conferences in major European cities (Dublin, Utrecht, Nottingham, Oporto, Pamplona, Macerata, Edinburgh and Leuven) the 2019 conference was held in Athens at the Byzantine Museum. This conference report for Alluvium explores three main areas, that are of particular significance to scholars working within contemporary literature, but which have wider resonances across the academic humanities. First, I discuss the benefit of making academic connections across national borders and disciplinary boundaries; second, I summarise a key argument from Professor Rick Rylance’s keynote lecture on “The Creative Economy and New Challenges for Humanities Research”; finally, I reflect on the conference theme of “Creative Industries and Cultural Democracy” and consider how these two ideas can sit together within the contemporary academy.
For those unfamiliar with ECHIC, it is a cross-disciplinary European consortium which was founded by Rosi Bradotti in 2008. Alongside articulating the value of the humanities and encouraging examples of best practises in research methodologies, ECHIC aims to provide a contact point for national and European humanities research centres, institutes, departments, and relevant policy- and decision-makers. Therefore, the ECHIC conference offers an all-too-rare chance to discuss changes to higher education across subjects and national borders. Over the course of two days, delegates listened to presentations from Greece, Italy, England, Scotland, Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Korea, Hungary, Bulgaria and France. The broad perspective gained from multi-national experiences of contemporary policy and debates concerning the value of the humanities offered a sense of clarity to specific cultural contexts. For example, the present changes to higher education funding in the Creative Industries in the UK, in terms of investment in the UKRI Audience of the Future programme was shown to be in alignment with the EU “Budget for the Future” (European Commission funds for 2021– 27). George Moschovis (Deputy Head of the Representation of the European Commission in Greece), informed delegates how funding for innovative storytelling, videogames, and virtual reality is set to increase in the EU over the next decade.1 On a regional scale, Dr Emily McGiffin (Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh), discussed how research into the operation of artist residency programmes in rural Scotland was helping her to establish and develop her art space/ residency site in the rural location of Hazelton, British Colombia. At the level of a single project, Professor Joanna Soafer (University of Southampton), provided an exemplary model of impact which was not shaped by research commissioning, the presupposition of artistic work, or the drive towards formal REF definitions of impact. Instead, the CinBA project explored the nature of creativity and the creative process, and in doing so provides scholars with a useful model for meaningful engagement with both creators and organisations within the creative industries. Beyond these three example presentations, numerous other interconnections between disciplines, between policy-orientations, and between artistic challenges emerged over the course of the two days, with links reaching beyond the limits of the organised panels. The organisers, in particular Dr Angeliki Spiropoulou, assembled an admirably diverse collection of scholarly voices, however, a sense that we are not alone in the local and national challenges we face was a recurrent theme, as was the perception of the need to speak with a unified voice to articulate the value of the arts and humanities at the level of government.
Rick Rylance’s keynote lecture was particularly significant in advocating for confidence and clarity to policymakers in the present moment. Dispelling what he called “folk myths” about the social and economic importance of books being in decline. Rylance pointed to three reasons for (pragmatic) optimism: first, the expansion of the publishing industry; second, to the fact that there is more research money in the humanities in the UK today than at any other point in history; finally that the UK remains a nation of self-identified readers (75% of recent Ipsos Mori Poll said they read literature regularly). Addressing recent interest in the creative industries, Rylance suggests that just because books are involved in money-making activities does not mean that they are devalued. In fact, he argued that, to observe that books are commodities as well as art-objects, is something that we disregard at our peril. Rylance suggested that the neglect of engagement with the economic value of the humanities relates to a literary prejudice against money; wealth in fiction rarely produces a positive representation. Although the point of literature is certainly not to make money, it is a centrally important part of contemporary culture; Rylance argued that to ignore this relationship between literary commodities (and agents, publishers, book clubs, prizes, radio shows, new editions) is to undervalue the work of the humanities in the twenty-first century. Other dimensions of valuation of cultural work, such as the contribution to people’s lives and the potential to transmit ideas across different populations, also formed a significant part of Rylance’s address. However, I think that this call to engage directly and more confidently in the idea of creative work is something that contemporary literature scholars should seriously consider. Rylance provided a particularly striking image, about the dangers of such myopic thinking: a frog in a well. Referring to the Chinese idiom based on Zhuāng Zǐ’s fable, the evocative image captures the dangers of narrow-mindedness and ignorance of a wider cultural context. Relating the idea of a frog in a well to the creative industries, there may be several wells we are thinking about. First, the government itself might be in a well of neoliberal New Public Management (better systems of measuring culture equals better culture). But perhaps we might admit that literature scholars might be prone to wells of our own; in the bi-centenary year of Middlemarch, we might seek to splash out beyond the limits of brown ponds into living streams.
“Creative Industries” is a phrase that in itself presents the entanglement of arts and economics, and this is a phenomenon we need to engage with, rather than ignore. True, ultimately to instigate national change, policymakers are required to pay attention to alternative values, but first, it requires humanities scholars and creative practitioners to articulate them. Dave O’Brien observes that although “measurement is important to policy making” (91) it is equally significant to observe that measurement itself should be “examined by critically engaging with the historical trends and managerial ideologies that have brought these methods to prominence” (ibid.). This is work that the humanities knows how to do, to historicize, to read cultural policy, to interrogate it. And this is urgently required in order to better understand and articulate the creation of the creative industries in the 1990s and the continued investment in the 2010s. This might mean that the objects we explore are sometimes involved in economics and money-making work. But in getting involved in the debate about the cultural industries, arts and humanities researchers can have a voice in the discussion which will undoubtedly progress without us if we decline to participate. With this in mind, in the entanglement of cultural value and creative work, humanities scholars must act in reframing Thatcher’s indicative “there is no alternative” (to the forces of marketization) into the interrogative “is there no alternative?”.
The ECHIC conference was held right next to the ancient foundations of Aristotle’s Lyceum. It is barely a hole in the ground nowadays, far less frequented by tramping coach-loads of tourists than the Acropolis. Perhaps this is because there is nothing to take a photograph of specifically: it is just a circular path lined with olive trees, lavender, and wildflowers, at the edge of a noisy city. Pacing the perimeter, as the conference discussions drew to a close, I felt a strong sense of connections which have not yet been severed. Athens is of ancient importance to the arts and humanities, even if in different forms from those we recognise within formal syllabi today. That said, I suppose Plato might yet offer up some philosophical frameworks to help us understand virtual reality. Despite over two millennia passing, there are some things about cultural value that have not changed much at all. The format of dialogue, popularised by Plato, remains a vital tenet of cultural democracy. To preserve many voices and to encourage the exchange of ideas is something that academic conferences perform in and of themselves. In addition, theatre itself, and its ability to render epic ideas into something accessible was a Greek invention credited to Thesbis. The ability of the arts to represent social challenges is no less significant in the twenty-first century than it was in 530BC. Finally, the site of the Lyceum itself, the first peripatetic school of philosophy, physically represents the importance of learning from experience. The term “Peripatetic” is a transliteration of the ancient Greek word περιπατητικός (peripatêtikos), which means “of walking” or “given to walking about”–it refers to a style of teaching and philosophy which lacks rigidity and encourages a freedom of intellectual study which is based on experience rather than theoretical formula. This is something that the humanities in the twenty-first century might do well to remember. Sometimes it might just a case of talking to people in the building next to you, sometimes it is the university down the road, and sometimes it necessary to hop on a plane. ECHIC 2019 affirmed the benefits of avoiding disciplinary narrow-mindedness, of rejecting being just another frog-in-a-well, and the potential of how taking a walk around an ancient garden can offer a means to consider potential futures for the humanities.
 See “EU Budget: Reinforcing Europe’s Cultural and Creative Sectors.” European Commission Press Release Database, 30 May 2018, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-3950_en.htm. Accessed 15 April 2019.
 For examples of such resistance see Fisher, M. Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009).
Zoe Bulaitis, “On ‘Creative Industries and Cultural Democracy’” Alluvium, 7. 2 (2019): n. pag. Web. 30 April 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.2.02
About the Author:
Zoe Hope Bulaitis is a Research Associate at the University of Manchester in the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC). Her research focuses on articulations of value in contemporary higher education and the creative sector, in particular, processes of economisation; policy engagement and critique; histories of liberal and neoliberal education; and humanities-oriented methodologies.
You can tweet her @zoebulaitis
Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist realism : is there no alternative? Zero books.
O’Brien, D. (2015). Cultural Value, Measurement and Policy Making. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 14 (1), pp.79-94.
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