German culture veteran remakes Marseille | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 03.01.2013
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German culture veteran remakes Marseille

The sprawling city of Marseille offers a marathon of cultural events this year - with German support. The program for the European Capital of Culture in 2013 was planned with help from Ulrich Fuchs.

The desk in Ulrich Fuchs' office is overflowing with plans, program notes and brochures. Stacks of folders fill the cupboards on the wall.

While holidaymakers and locals are sunning themselves in the cafés lining the harbor, the acting director of Marseille-Provence 2013 is under immense pressure to finalize the details of the event program. Marseille's turn in the spotlight as a European Capital of Culture has to be a success if the city is to finally shed its image as a criminal stronghold.

When asked whether or not the job is any fun under such pressure, Fuchs looks longingly out the window at the luminous blue sky for a second or two. "Well, the job is very stressful. My weekends are often packed with business trips or with work on location," he says.

It's been a long time since he took a holiday for longer than 10 days, but Fuchs is happy to accept the downsides of a task at hand. He talks about the privilege "of being able to engage with a city, to listen to people, to develop ideas further with them.

"For five years I had a key role in the development of the city," he continues, "and that often helps me to forget about the stress."

The Centre régional de la Méditerranée in Marseille

Marseille's new Centre régional de la Méditerranée will stage exhibitions on Mediterranean culture

Diplomatic nitty-gritty

In his role as acting director of Marseille-Provence 2013, Fuchs needs to possess a thorough knowledge of the international culture scene and be a great organizer, as well as an agile player on the political stage. A flair for diplomacy and the ability to pull strings are a must.

That the French opted to involve a German in such a prestigious project is quite surprising. But city officials in Marseille offered Fuchs the job because of his unique expertise.

Since 2000, he's been preoccupied with the nitty-gritty of the European Culture Capital machine: first in Germany, then in the Austrian city of Linz, where he was also acting director in 2009. Very few culture experts in Europe have played a decisive role in two, let alone three Culture Capital processes.

Bulldozers and humans in a performance by UK dance group Motionhouse

Performances by the UK dance group Motionhouse are part of the program for Marseille-Provence 2013

That 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty of Friendship between Germany and France also has a part to play. In that sense, the German-French cooperation in Marseille is highly symbolic.

Aside from that, Fuchs says, it's good for a foreigner to look at the city "and then often identify things which for the locals have become so self-evident that they are no longer perceived as strengths or weaknesses."

Memorial against persecution

Fuchs is assisted by 70 co-workers. In Maison Diamantee, a landmarked 16th-century building, they've put together a 360-page program of events for the city of Marseille. Alongside a host of exhibitions and concerts, political issues are also in focus.

That includes a tour of the former deportation camp in the village of Les Milles, near Aix-en-Provence. From September 1939, the southern-French Vichy regime, collaborators with Nazi Germany, interned more than 10,000 people there.

Initially, Camp des Milles served as an interment camp for Germans and Austrians who had fled the Nazi regime, including the painter Max Ernst and author Lion Feuchtwanger. It later became a transit camp for Jews deported to Auschwitz. Today Camp des Milles is a memorial against persecution.

The former internment camp at Les Milles

The former internment camp at Les Milles is now a memorial against persecution

Another central theme of Marseille 2013 is the integration of immigrants. The harbor city of Marseille is traditionally seen as the gateway from northern Africa to Europe and is geographically closer to Algiers than Paris.

"Marseille is a link between the African continent and the European continent and that was the declared thematic objective of this year's program," Fuchs says.

Correspondingly, a large number of the participating artists come from the opposite side of the Mediterranean, and many of their works touch on developments in the Arab world.

Making culture accessible

Fuchs is particularly proud of such elements of the program. He was adamant that the program for Marseille 2013 should not be a reflection of elite artistic appreciation found in high-brow feuilletons; rather take into account political and social developments.

In light of the modernization of many districts of Marseille, he sees the task of the European Capital of Culture as correcting political decisions and market mechanisms "that have been ruthlessly pushed against social concerns."

As such, discussions between city developers and local residents in socially deprived areas are due to take place. And in order to make the program accessible to the poorest residents of Marseille, a range of free-of-charge events has also been planned.

Ulrich Fuchs

Ulrich Fuchs has three culture capital projects under his belt

Ulrich Fuchs is largely preoccupied with the ever increasing gap between rich and poor that has resulted from the financial crisis. He fears the emergence of a split between northern and southern Europe and that the existence of a unified Europe without borders is under threat.

Fuchs also believes that a sense of being the "underdog" is developing in southern Europe, similar to what had previously been reflected in the eastern and western European divide. It's something he really noticed during his last trip to Berlin.

"When I flew back to Marseille I thought to myself: Berlin is so damn rich and so swanky and in a certain sense, also so nouveau-riche. You see shops there selling leather shoes for 4,000 euros," he noted. "You wouldn't see that in Marseille."

Clumsy politicians

On his travels through Europe, Fuchs has felt the feeling of animosity towards Germany grow. He attributes that to the behavior of German politicians, which he often finds "clumsy" and insensitive.

"Then you're really happy that the new airport in Berlin isn't finished, because it shows the Germans are also fallible," he says.

When his tenure as acting director in Marseille is over, Fuchs would like to return to his hometown of Bremen. He's also planning to take a long holiday in Marseille and finally have the time to enjoy a pastis in the sun in one of the bustling cafés on the harbor.

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