Conversas Rotterdam, a communitarian project facing a capitalist world
By Marco Aperti
Conversas Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Conversas Rotterdam, a communitarian project facing a capitalist world
A brief introduction
Conversas is a self-organized art project, initiated in 2012, in Lisbon by Constança Saraiva and Mafalda Fernandes. In 2014, the artist and graphic designer Constanca moved to Rotterdam, continuing this endeavor in the new city. Conversas (conversations in Portuguese) is based on the principle of story-sharing with people gathered in a selected location. During the free event, the conversadores, who are in charge of starting the conversation, stimulate the discussion using a topic close to participants’ interests. Currently, Conversas Rotterdam has organized more than 150 gatherings in its 16th series.
I began attending Conversas in 2017, and I have been actively involved within the organization since April 2018. Coming from a highly competitive and commercial experience in the cultural sphere, I was fascinated by the contrast between the effort of producing the events, its valuable content and the almost total absence of economic profit. With continuous and vital feedback from the team involved, I have been analyzing and questioning what new approaches can be taken. Moreover, I believe that some of the issues that Conversas face can set the scene for fruitful debates among the community of the ENCATC platform.
General context about the cultural scene in Rotterdam
Both the Netherlands and Rotterdam are dynamic and vital platforms for experiencing creativity and diversity in the cultural sector. Creative industries are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Dutch Economy. From academic research to government statistics and brand marketing, creative industries have been labeled as “top sector”, being defined as a growing area where the Dutch business community and research centers excel globally. In particular, the city of Rotterdam is characterized by privately and publicly funded cultural hubs contributing to the variety of the Dutch cultural scene.
Creative industries have been widely discussed in many academic papers. The definition from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport stated in 1998 seems to be a good starting point. Creative industries are defined as “those activities which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property” (DCMS, 1998, in Rozentale & Lavanga, 2014). Although, contested for its ambiguity, this analytical definition still represents an important primary frame.
An extended introduction
As stated on multiple platforms (Conversas global website, Facebook, Instagram, newsletter), the event is defined as “a series of weekly or bi-weekly informal meetings that take place with the aim of gathering professionals willing to know and discuss on different projects and interests related to the field. During the event, the conversadores (those speaking at Conversas) bring up a specific topic to share with participants and speak for about 30 minutes each. Conversas offers an equal set up from which all can benefit”. The informality of the description sets the tone with focus on the creative and informal audience who usually attends this gathering.
Each event hosts three different conversadores and each series includes ten conversas. Often, at the end of the series, a printed publication is launched. The publication, designed in partnership with a locally based graphic designer, becomes the object to record and appreciate the past events in an original and creative way. The central celebration of diversity and inclusivity for every social class is directly reflected in the range of topics covered at the event. The total freedom given to each conversador creates the perfect multidisciplinary platform to experience human variety. We often approach shy individuals with our motto “Everyone can be a conversador, because everyone has an interesting story to share”. In the history of Conversas, a diverse spectrum of topics has been triggered: academic research, existential questions, art and music performances and marketing among others.
The event is organized by volunteers and generates no direct income for the team involved. Income is generated through two channels: the sale of a small quantity of beverages and merchandising (i.e. tote bags and the printed publications). The small profit is used to finance future publications and to cover daily expenses (in general terms, the budget created ranges between 150€ and 170€). The team structure is flexible and organic due to its unregulated nature. The current team comprises five creatives involved in different fields, which generates contrast. A positive feature is clearly the constant flux of creative and inventive people involved in the organization. However, this flexibility can lead to sudden changes, which can sometimes prove counterproductive for long-term planning.
Born as a small community art project, Conversas steadily grows its audience. The platform has now been hosted in more than 20 different locations all over the city of Rotterdam, a total audience of more than 3000 people, with more than 450 conversadores. Ultimately, Conversas’ easy and repeatable format has been replicated in several other countries and created a significant and valuable network.
Which challenges lay ahead for Conversas?
The daily management of and team roles within Conversas are difficult to pinpoint. The very essence of the event is that of being open and supportive. The team is often willing to back up each other’s tasks. The informality of the work stimulates the understanding and the organic development of our best skills and opportunities and allows the team to experiment with different tasks. This is clearly a big advantage that enhances our ability to fully grow with the project itself. Despite the organic process, to facilitate the understanding of the readers, I can simplify the work accomplished into four categories: communication; research and planning for new conversadores; practical planning for events; and sponsorship and funding seeking.
Firstly, communication has always been a hot topic at our members’ meetings. Human interaction and genuine connection are essential for Conversas, however, the team understands and values the power of social media. The current “strategy” involves promotion within our personal networks, Facebook and Instagram posts and promotion via our newsletter. The small-scale of the events with attendees ranging from 15 to 25 people, has been actively increasing through the simple process of “tagging”. Tags allow social media users to engage actively with their profile when they have been mentioned in a post or a comment. Facebook and other social platforms notify the recipient with hyperlinks to the tagged profile. Specifically, tagging can be visualized on the private profiles of the tagged person, exponentially spreading the post across different networks. For its part, newsletters and social media posts are fundamental elements that stimulate our online audience and promote upcoming events. The challenge is to strike a balance between presenting a genuine, small-scale event, through active advertising that seeks to expand the audience.
Secondly, seeking, persuading, scheduling and managing conversadores demands a significant effort and time investment. The extensive spectrum of people invited facilitates and stimulates research for the whole team, directly reflecting on the diverse entropy of humans. Nevertheless, having such a vast pool of potential conversadores can lead towards a choice-overload process. Similarly, having a variety of people and locations demands good skills in time management, prioritization, and good communication and coordination between the team members. Higher efficiency can be achieved by growing the network, which would provide further potential conversadores through an increase in the popularity of the platform. In other terms, if the platform increases its popularity, the team can invest less time in seeking potential conservadores.
Thirdly, the practical planning of the event is as important as finding the right setting. Often dealing with sensitive and personal topics, the team is highly committed to creating the most welcoming and relaxing environment, or it may have been experimenting with less formal presentations, such as sitting in circles on soft blankets and cushions instead of chairs, and not using projectors, bright lights or podiums.
The research of new sources of funding has been a pivotal topic for Conversas. The social importance of the platform has been supported by an increasing number of attendees and validated through the receipt of invitations to symposiums and academic events from the cultural panorama of Rotterdam. Conversas has received two rounds of funding from Cultuur Concrete, the art and culture partner of the city of Rotterdam. These were limited to some neighborhoods for our activities. The funding was aimed at Charlois and Feyenoord, southern neighborhoods of Rotterdam, where arts and community projects are boosted.
The south of Rotterdam had consistent injections of funding, particularly towards arts and community projects aimed at revitalizing problematic areas. For the upcoming series, we will not receive any economic support. On one side the organization acknowledges, through the consumption of time and through the valuable creative and human exchange created, the importance of the platform, not only for the community but for the general cultural sphere. However, on the other side, there is a growing unsettling concern towards the difficulty of pursuing time-consuming tasks without receiving any economic gain. Addressing private sponsorship is a path we can take. However, it does bring on the table other questions, considerations and concerns.
The relationship between culture and money is still an issue. Borrowing the words from K. Oakley “it is important not to sentimentalise cultural work, all work has a moral dimension, and there is no reason that cultural workers should be at the vanguard of more ethical forms of labour” (Oakley, 2014). These topics, despite being listed independently, are clearly and deeply connected with each other; every change has to be considered carefully. The very essence of Conversas is about the balance between its informality and creation of a creative and valuable network.
What’s the future for Conversas?
Which future is there for a self-organized project with extensive qualities, appreciated by the local public, generating constant content and spreading globally, if only based on passion and ideals fed by the working team? Has culture and the creation of it still been perceived and assessed as a divertissement? Is Conversas the result of the production of “content” designed without thinking about the consequences, a project that really ignores the structures and material conditions of its making process? Or does this success demonstrate the importance and the necessity of voluntarily based events? A multi-brand event with hundreds of attendees with pop-up bars and commercial stands for promotion of a diverse spectrum of items? Or maybe a small neighborhood meeting, spreading in multiple locations of the same city, where emotional experiences and creative support can be found?
Speculations and future projections are a good exercise to discuss the future of platforms like Conversas. It is important to keep on debating uncomfortable topics such as different business models and other ways of conceiving creative-cultural work.
Questions for further discussion
Can a voluntary project thrive without economic support?
How is the process of funding shaping the creation of culture?
What does it mean to be independent in a capitalistic-driven cultural world?
OAKLEY, K (2014), Good Work? Rethinking cultural Entrepreneurship. In Bilton, C. and Cummings, S. (eds) Handbook of Management and Creativity.(pp.145-160). Edgar Elgar.
ROZENTALE, I, LAVANGA M. (2014) The “universal” characteristics of creative industries revisited: The case of Riga. City, Culture and Society, 5, 55-64.
Marco Aperti holds a B.Arch in Architecture and Society from the Polytechnic of Milan, a M.A. in Monumental Heritage from the Anhalt University, in collaboration with the Bauhaus Foundation and he is currently attending the Pre-Master in Cultural Economics and Entrepreneurship at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. He has worked as project manager and content creator for a variety of cultural organizations all over Europe. Marco is part of the Conversas Rotterdam team since April 2018, where he works to stimulate and increase the network within the cultural sphere of Rotterdam. Conversas Rotterdam is currently organized by Constança Saraiva, Marco Aperti, Sebastiaan Helbers, Bérénice Staiger and Maurice Suitela.