Creative cross-border culture in the north

Northern Norway and the High North is experiencing a time of change where increased globalisation creates new challenges – and new possibilities. As Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre stated in an article in the Arctic Herald recently: “Due to the changes taking place in the Arctic, the High North is moving from the outskirts to a new geopolitical centre of gravity.”


Much of the attention that falls on the High North is caused by its richness in natural resources like fish, oil and gas, minerals and so on. But the High North and the Barents Region are also rich in human resources, and during the last few years the creative activities that take place in the area have been noticed by the outside world – both nationally and internationally. 

The 20-year jubilee of the Barents Cooperation will be celebrated by the prime ministers of the four Barents countries in Kirkenes, Norway, in June 2013. As a model for cross-border cooperation the Barents Cooperation is unique. No other place in the world has a region, which is basically remote and which includes several nations, been successful in carrying out such an extensive and well-functioning cooperation. Within the cooperation the regional level has been allowed to exercise foreign policy independent of the capitals. The Barents Cooperation model can be used as an export product, and over the past few years representatives of other border regions - for instance in the Baltic, on the Balkans and in Caucasus – have visited the Barents Region to see how the cooperation across the borders work practically. The introduction of the Barents model in other border regions can hopefully contribute to quell conflicts. In this work, artists and cultural workers may play an important role. Norway has a broad experience in carrying out conflict prevention and development by means of art and cultural projects. The Barents Region has been the arena for these kinds of projects for many years. Norwegian, Russian and other countries’ artists have been brought together to learn from each other. Artists have the best qualifications to work as bridge builders between people, between countries and between cultures.

The Barents region has a rich cultural life and several creative and talented cultural workers and artists. Through almost 20 years of cooperation the cultural networks in the region have grown strong in competence and knowledge. During the first years of the Barents cooperation, most of the projects in the culture area were small people-to-people activities, run by Norwegian and Russian NGOs. These projects are not the most expensive ones, but they still create an important basis for the rest of the work which is carried out in the region.

At the same time, the Barents Region and the cross-border cooperation which goes on here, to an increasing extent has become an exciting destination for artists who belong to other parts of the world. The Barents Region is more and more often used as an arena for development of new cross-border contemporary art and culture, often in an interaction between artists from the region and artists from the outside world. The annual festival Barents Spektakel in the Norwegian Barents-town Kirkenes is a good example of this. The festival is a melting-pot of multi-disciplinary events ranging from business conferences to political talks, accompanied by high-level cultural happenings. Professional high-quality culture goes hand in hand with popular events, all of which attract a considerable crowd of both local and visiting audiences. The festival is characterized by a number of first-time presentations of Norwegian, Russian and other countries’ artists’ site-specific art; art that is inspired by and created in the surrounding border-area and other places in the High North.  

Cultural entrepreneurship is a concept, which currently gains growing attention and importance in Europe. To an increasing extent, the establishment of micro-businesses within the cultural economy plays a key role in creating employment. To actively support cultural activities and business based on culture can contribute to regional development. Cultural activities and a rich business life with many companies that base their income on culture can serve as an important tool in the branding and marketing of the region in the outside world. Cultural activities and business based on culture can make a region creative and dynamic, which again contributes to a development where the region attracts new business establishments; because of the region’s attractiveness companies may choose to set up business here, and not elsewhere. Culture can thus contribute to the creation of more working-places.  The Barents cooperation should thus focus on the economic value of the region’s cultural richness, and the possibilities that exist for the development of creative art in the region.

All of these elements gave the Norwegian Barents Secretariat the motivation to establish a financing programme for professional cultural cooperation in the Barents Region; the BarentsKult Programme. The programme was launched in 2008. The target group for BarentsKult is creative and executant Norwegian and Russian artists and professional cultural institutions. The smaller cultural projects, which are mostly carried out by NGOs and therefore not eligible for support through BarentsKult, will continue to get support through the regional Barents funds which are administered by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

The programme’s objective is to contribute to the realisation of large art and culture projects in Norwegian and Russian part of the Barents Region. The programme should stimulate to an increase in good and creative art and cultural projects. The projects must involve both Russian and Norwegian partners. Through the BarentsKult programme, the wish is to stimulate a broader cooperation between Norwegian, Russian and other nations’ artists. The focus of all the projects should be the Barents Region and the High North. By establishing a financing programme which contributes to an increase in the number of bi-lateral and multi-lateral cooperation projects within areas like music, dramatic and visual art we both directly and indirectly contribute to the establishment of cultural working places in the north. Finnmark County Authority has, inter alia, stated that its aim is to establish around 500 new working places within the cultural sector by 2014. BarentsKult could be an important contribution in the realisation of this goal.

BarentsKult can contribute to making the Barents Region more visible as a cultural region.  The aim is to create results that last after the projects have ended. The events and measures that are supported should be creative and cross-border in its nature. This can also contribute to a stronger identity building in the region. The programme aims at involving the indigenous peoples of the region in the project cooperation. The indigenous peoples’ culture is cross-border in its nature.

The cultural cooperation in the Barents Region must build on the region’s peculiarities, and on the strengths of each member area. As a result of the BarentsKult programme’s financial contributions, competence, local knowledge and networks will hopefully be developed and strengthened. The cultural projects should be conceived as useful for the inhabitants and the region, but they should also help strengthened the cultural institutions and the artists in the region.

BarentsKult has become an important financing programme for art and culture projects in the north. Through the programme over 60 Norwegian-Russian projects within most cultural disciplines have been launched since 2008, all with participants from Nordland, Troms or Finnmark. BarentsKult has contributed to the first visit to Norway of the world renowned Mariinsky Ballet from St. Petersburg; it happened in the High North, in the town of Tromsø. The Figure Theatre in Stamsund in Nordland has developed an exciting cooperation with its partner Melt Point in St. Petersburg, and this has resulted in a brand new family performance. Designers representing indigenous peoples in Russia and Norway have worked together at the Riddu Riddu Festival and created innovative multicultural clothing, and several new music compositions to accompany old silent movies have been made by Norwegian and Russian artists at Tromsø International Film Festival. These are a few of the projects which have received support through the programme.

BarentsKult has proven to be significant also by its role as a meeting place for all the central public institutions that are involved in the Norwegian-Russian cultural cooperation in the North: the county administrations of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Ministry of Culture and the Barents Secretariat. Through their cooperation and work on the programme the institutions are given valuable opportunities for exchange of information and coordination. In addition to being the three northernmost Norwegian counties’ fund for the realisation of concrete, professional cultural projects, BarentsKult thus also serves as a cooperation forum for the 6 most important institutions in the Norwegian-Russian cultural arena in Norway.  

BarentsKult will continue for at least 2 more years to finance exciting new projects. In order to give a further boost to the cultural cooperation between Norway and Russia it is to be hoped that Russia decides to create its own BarentsKult programme. The intention to do so was mentioned in the Action plan for cultural cooperation in the High North, signed by the former ministers of culture Giske and Avdeev in January 2009. The establishment of a Russian BarentsKult-programme would really help put the regions artists and cultural work on the map.