24th European meeting of cultural journals held in Hamburg

Harbour cities as places of movement, immigration and emigration, of inclusion and exclusion: this was the starting point for three days of debate at this year’s Eurozine conference, held in Hamburg from 14 to 16 September and co-organized and hosted by the journal Mittelweg 36 and the Hamburg Institute for Social Research.

“Harbour cities as places of movement, immigration and emigration, of inclusion and exclusion, develop various distinct modes of being that not only reflect different cultural traditions and political and social self-conceptions, but also contain economic potential and communicate how they see themselves as part of the larger structure that is ‘Europe’.” This was the starting point for three days of debate at this year’s Eurozine conference, entitled “Arrivals / Departures: European harbour cities as places of migration”, held in Hamburg from 14 to 16 September and co-organized and hosted by the journal Mittelweg 36 and The Hamburg Institute for Social Research.

On the opening evening, and by way of welcome to the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (to give it its full name), Eurozine was honoured by an invitation to the Rathaus, an impressive historicist edifice whose architecture embodies the bourgeois, mercantile virtues of the city. Addressing the network, the deputy mayor and senator for science and research, Dorothee Stapelfeldt, praised the aptness of the conference topic given the importance of Hamburg’s harbour to the city’s culture and the efforts made by the current mayor, Olaf Scholz, to promote social integration by encouraging Hamburg’s migrant population adopt German citizenship.

Eurozine guests then moved to the Hamburger Institute for Social Research, whose address – Mittelweg 36 – is also the name of the institute’s journal. There they were entertained by the HIS founder and director Jan Philipp Reemtsma, professor of literature at the University of Hamburg, who recited a text by Arno Schmidt, Germany’s “forgotten modernist”. The choice could not have been more apt: a history of maritime navigation and astronomic science, Schmidt’s text recalled a rare moment of peaceful European collaboration in a history defined predominantly by war. It will soon be appearing in Eurozine together with an introduction by Reemtsma.

Saturday began with an introduction to the topic of the harbour city by Gaby Zipfel, editor of Mittelweg 36. Because urban space was to be treated not only as the object but also as the mode of enquiry, the conference began with tours of the HafenCity, the large-scale development underway in Hamburg’s former docklands, and the Elbphilharmonie, the city’s new concert hall being built at its western tip. Designed by the architects Herzog & de Meuron, the Elbphilharmonie has come at massive expense, making it far from universally popular among the city’s residents. Yet the engineering virtuosity behind it is undisputed: guided through the building site, Eurozine partners got an insight into what it means to rest a 200 thousand-tonne structure on a silt foundation, into the problems encountered making the unique, bulbous windows resistant to gale-force winds, and into the challenge of insulating a concert hall from the sounds of a harbour. The Ebphilharmonie is expected to open in 2015 – cost: half a billion euros and rising.

Back at sea level, herring sandwiches were taken aboard a Barkasse (barge), during which social scientist Manuel Aßner provided a history of immigration and emigration in the multi-ethnic harbour and surrounding districts. Anticipation was running high about the keynote speech, this year to be held by sociologist Saskia Sassen, whose book The Global City set the terms of urban research nearly a decade-and-a-half ago.

At the Körber Stiftung, the foundation for political and cultural sponsoring that had generously provided their spaces as a conference venue, Sassen impressed hugely, mustering a vast range of empirical data into a lucid and persuasive interpretation of macro-economic and urban-sociological trends. Describing “ambiguous gentrification” as “set of expulsions”, with “global land grabs” feeding urban populations, she refuted the idea of the global city. Instead, global cities, each with their own specializations, form networks and thus best serve the interests of corporations. Moving onto the connection between the financialization of economies and “sub-prime as state project”, Sassen analysed the “instrumentalization of debt” before outlining possible axes between global cities in the future. Saskia Sassen’s lecture will be published in Eurozine soon.

Returning the discussion to the harbour city specifically, sociologist Helmuth Berking spoke about “port cities without ports”, taking Bremerhaven as an example. Serving as the gateway to the new world in the nineteenth century, Bremerhaven received an injection of investment in the post-war period before going the way of many European ports in the 1970s, Berking explained. Today, the city has been re-invented in the body of the old, unusable city. Not without success: the German Centre of Emigration, located in Bremerhaven together with various maritime-scientific facilities, represents the city’s new knowledge economy. Shifting the focus to London, and above all to the “invisible labour” taking place in the region around the Thames estuary, Mute editor Anthony Iles then talked about the Olympic capital’s relationship to water and how the sea remains central to its role in the global economy. The growth of London as a centre of finance during the 1990s and the promotion of an attendant “creative sector” masks the fact that the UK’s balance of trade is still sustained by manufactured exports, Iles argued.

The tours on Saturday morning had emphasized a strong civic element in the planning of the HafenCity: the fact that the city has reserved rights over the land and that developers and owners are committed to providing public accessibility. A positive example, then, of urban regeneration? Before discussions resumed on Sunday, Anke Haarman, an artist involved in the activist network “Right to the city”, offered a more critical account of the HafenCity development. She targeted the lack of transparency accompanying the entire process, in particular the closing down of public debate during the planning stages and the lack of accountability in the private-public financing mode typical of the various HafenCity projects. Haarman’s photographs of Hamburg, accompanying a text by co-activist Nicole Vrenegor on Hamburg as “sell-out city”, can be seen here.

The panel “reports from four harbours”, chaired by Elke Rauth, editor of the Austrian journal dérive, got underway with Britta Söderqvist, curator at the Maritime Museum in Gothenburg. Söderqvist talked about Gothenburg’s transformation from site of mass emigration to industrial wasteland following the creation of a secondary port outside the city in the 1970s. Today, the narrative of harbour culture attracts the middle classes to the former harbour, at the expense of discussion of the “greater challenges and issues facing the city”. Saib Musette, an Algerian sociologist of migration, went on to speak about the port of Algiers’ more recent economic decline with the construction of oil and gas pipelines serving Europe via Spain and Italy. While 230,000 passengers still pass through the port of Algiers annually, primarily to Marseilles, the large part of immigration movements crossing Algeria are internal, as refugees flee conflict zones in Syria, Mali and Southern Sahara. African migrants, Musette explained, are joined by migrants from India and China, as the ethnic homogeneity of the post-independence era gives way to a new demographic in Algiers. The third report was given by Joëlle Zask, philosopher at the University of Provence, who talked about the cultural representation of Marseilles as maritime city. An historical site of migrant transit with an engrained anti-authoritarianism, Marseilles poses an alternative to France’s dominant communitarian ideology of assimilation or mixité. Embodying economic and social potential as a “community of strangers”, the port city of Marseilles stands for Europe as a whole, Zask suggested. The final report came from Victor Tsilonis (editor of Intellectum), a reluctant resident of Thessaloniki. Reluctant not because Thessaloniki lacks a venerable history – quite the opposite – but because, today, it is a port city that “turns its back on the sea”.

Parallel Sunday afternoon workshops explored network-specific questions: the first comparing notes on cultural publishing and policy in times of recession (see the dossier “Financing cultural journals: A European survey”); the second a preparatory session for next year’s Eurozine conference, provisionally entitled “locating the intellectual debate”, to be hosted by the Institute Ramón Llull in Barcelona from 13-15 September. The meeting was completed by a tour of the exhibition “Lost places” at the Hamburger Kunsthalle – a selection of photography, film and installation work evoking isolation, emptiness and the uncanny – and a closing address by Kunsthalle director Hubertus Gaßner. Artistic treatment of harbour cities, Gaßner observed, is rare: confirmation of the timeliness and relevance of this year’s conference topic.

Texts based on presentations given at the 24th European meeting of cultural journals will be published in Eurozine in the coming weeks. Read all articles in the focal point: “Arrivals / Departures: European harbour cities”.


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