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Chameleon strategies of BBOT-BNA, a Brussels digital storytelling organization. Dealing with the urban community, institutional politics and participation.

1. Introduction

In a city like Brussels, where different communities live together and interact, participatory media practices can play an important role in the construction of a democratic and communicative urban network. Analyzing one of these participatory urban media organizations – the digital storytelling organization BBOT-BNA (a combination of abbreviations of the Dutch[1] ‘Brussel Behoort Ons Toe’ and the French ‘Bruxelles Nous Appartient’, both meaning ‘Brussels Belongs To Us’) – allows for a closer look at the construction of a Brussels urban community. Since 2000, BBOT-BNA has been facilitating inhabitants of Brussels to record and upload their conversations in an online open-access database.

The participatory project BBOT-BNA is operating in a difficult political-ideological context. Brussels – as a city – is an urban community, but this is not translated into a political-institutional reality. Brussels is governed by a collage of institutions, and has to deal with different levels of government, which limit and sometimes contradict the construction of an urban community. For an organization like BBOT-BNA, this creates a rather awkward situation, as the financial stability of BBOT-BNA is dependent on different political institutions with sometimes diverging objectives (based on different language politics). At the same time, the bilingual BBOT-BNA is addressing the citizens of Brussels, on the basis of their urban identities, focussing on the experiences of living in the city, and not focussing on the linguistic identities which are privileged by some of the political institutions that operate in Brussels.

This article aims to analyse how BBOT-BNA deals with the tensions between its participatory-democratic objectives and its focus on the Brussels’ urban community on the one hand, and the requirements imposed by the subsidizing institutions that target specific language groups on the other hand. Through the analysis of a subvention application, this article sets out to study the coping strategies of this organization that are aimed at guaranteeing its survival whilst at the same time achieving its objectives.

2. Democratic urban spaces and the communicative city

Within a globally interconnected world, cities obviously constitute important places in society. Cities play a major role as nodes of a globally interconnected network, at the same time facing the global-local paradox. The economies, cultures and politics of scale on the global level are combined with a parallel process of downscaling because of the growing importance of local socio-cultural characteristics (Boudry et al., 2003: 48-49). Structurally embedded within these contrasting levels of globality and locality, a city is more than ever a space of meaning production, identity construction, contestation and struggle. It is a crucial site for the political to be organized (not limiting the political to institutionalized politics – see Mouffe (2000: 101)) and for citizens to participate in the many social spheres that affect their everyday lives. In considering the city as a key location for cosmopolitan citizenship, Stevenson notices:

‘The city has traditionally acted as a place where different groups have come to escape the surveillance and order of small communities, to engage in the delight of difference. One of the cultural reasons why cities remain popular is that they provide spaces for citizens to experiment with their identities and participate in a more disorderly existence.’ (2003: 59)

The disorderly nature of city, structured by differences and as a place for experimentation, opens up interesting horizons for citizen participation, and for articulating the city as a democratic city. An important impulse to this articulation, and a necessary component of the democratic city, is the (concept of the) communicative city that Kunzmann (1997: 27-28) has theorized within urban geography. He describes the communicative city as follows:

‘New information and communication technologies could and should be used more skillfully to meet local and regional information needs, and to supply regional residents with the kind of civic information they require to live comfortably in an active community. Both access to information and opportunities to use various communication technologies are required to initiate and maintain critical discussions on the future of a city region, to create local identity and civic pride, and to enhance participation in and commitment to urban development.’ (Kunzmann, 1997: 28)

Although this description is still very much focused on urban planning, it does highlight a number of dimensions that characterize the communicative city. A first aspect refers to the social dimension of communication, where the residents of the city enter into ‘discussions’, interactions and dialogues, facilitated by ‘various communication technologies’ in a variety of interconnected communicative urban spaces, a process that generates social cohesion and ‘active communities’. Second, Kunzmann’s description of the communicative city also incorporates a political dimension. Of course, the emphasis on ‘critical discussions’ already articulates the communicative city as political. Moreover, the political dimension in Kunzmann’s definition is strengthened by his reference to a needs-based perspective of civic information provision, and to the processes of access and participation (or ‘opportunities to use’). On the downside, Kunzmann’s approach to the political is also restrictive, as participation is very much limited to urban development, and needs to be expanded on a number of levels.

This required definitional expansion first of all relates to the broadening of the scope of participation, combining the presence of a participatory network of public spaces with a participatory and decentralized decision-making structure. Second, the organized nature of the ‘active community’ also needs to be made explicit, avoiding a neoliberal citizen-state dichotomy and increasing the weight of civil society in the communicative city. Third, the political dimension of the communicative city needs to be complemented with two other (related) dimensions: the ethical and the spatial. The ethical-political dimension refers to one of the other conditions of possibility of the communicative city, which is that its needs to be tolerant, open and respectful towards diversity. The communicative city has an urban community that is no longer characterised by the old community-as-Gemeinschaft principle – a romantic notion once introduced by Tönnies – but is constituted by a disorderly and fluid collage of social groups that still experience a sense of belonging and negotiate their conflicts through agonistic practices (Mouffe, 2005). The spatial-political dimension refers to the spatial component of this openness and to the interconnectedness with non-city spaces. The communicative city’s walls need to be porous, as its communicational focus transcends the city in order to establish (communicative) connections with its outside, without losing its city identity, as is captured by Appadurai’s (1995) concept of the translocal (see Carpentier, 2008).

3. Participatory media practices

The communicative city, with its social, political, ethical and spatial dimensions, provides excellent support to validate local participatory media initiatives, as they intensify the appropriation of the city by its inhabitants. There are of course many possibilities for interventions – Libois, Hustache, and Versaen (2005: 134) for instance refer to people’s interventions in changing their streets and thus their everyday living environment – but in this article we want to focus on participatory media organizations, that are defined in this context as local and alternative sites of media production.

The local nature of these media organizations can be situated on a diversity of levels. They can focus on local themes, interpreting the world through a local perspective or by using a local language (Girard, 2000: 1). Local media organizations can also communicate local needs and concerns. But also the local production of media content, what Simpson called the ‘artisanal production’ (cited in Beltran, 2005: 21), can be seen as part of this local media identity. Although not all local media organizations are participatory or alternative media, the more participatory local media organizations also facilitate access, interaction and participation of local citizens and civil society organizations.

The second characteristic, their alternative nature, refers to a high degree to their participatory objectives, which (together with the tendency for producing counter-hegemonic discourses) renders them an alternative to the mainstream (Bailey et al., 2007). As Downing (1984: 35) remarked, these (participatory, local and alternative) media (which he calls ‘radical media’) flourish in the wasteland left by mainstream media. Even if he wrote this within the specific context of the 1980s, these alternative media organizations still address an important democratic hiatus in many of the world’s media landscapes[2].

The concept of alternative media embraces a wide variety of participatory practices: including a horizontal organization, alternative content production and the orientation toward a community (which can be a local community, or a community of interest). From this perspective, alternative media play a crucial role in the democratization of the media and the democratization through the media (Wasko and Mosco, 1992: 7; Lindblad in Hagen, 1992: 23). The more ‘open’ media structure (Berrigan, 1977: 17) allows people to participate in media organizations themselves, which at the micro-participatory level implies that citizens can be active in one of the many (micro-)spheres relevant to daily life and to put their right to communicate into practice. These forms of micro-participation are also important, because they allow people to learn and adopt a democratic and/or civic attitude. Participation through the media deals with the opportunities that alternative media create for citizens to participate in public debates and to represent themselves in public spaces, thus, entering the realm of enabling and facilitating macro-participation. Rodriguez, in her book on citizen media, uses the concept of the empowerment of communities to describe a radical-democratic variation of citizenship (2001: 158). Here, citizens claim space for voicing their views publicly, intervene tenaciously, shape their identities, and circulate socio-political discourses and cultural codes. This process of empowerment is described as follows by Berrigan (1977: 18):

‘[…] media are capable of activating people, of stimulating people not only to take part in the media process, but to become more active in society. They believe that media have a role in forming attitudes, in developing critical awareness, in informing people about the realities of their situation and in stimulating them to improve or change it.’

If we take a closer look at these participatory media organizations in an urban context, their role in sustaining a democratic-communicative city unfolds on different levels (Carpentier, 2008). First of all, due to their local embeddedness and alternative nature that privileges participation, these media can generate a political space through which discussions, debates and deliberations between inhabitants are enabled. Secondly, the interactions between the multiple urban spaces generated by participatory media organizations create social cohesion within the city. Finally, these organizations sustain local identities and show local everyday lives, through the access and participation of the city’s inhabitants.

4. Brussels as a contested urban community

In this article, we will focus on Brussels, and on how participatory media organizations (try to) contribute to the establishment of a Brussels democratic-communicative city, within the difficult and complicated political context that characterizes Brussels and that affects the work of many of its (civil society) organizations.

From the 14th century onwards, Brussels had two city walls. The first 12th century wall protected the old inner city, while the second wall encircled what is now the city centre. Demolished in 1760 and 1780 (Doucet, 2008), few parts of these walls survived. The Hallepoort is one of these remaining parts, and the pattern of the second wall is still visible as it has become the pentagon-shaped motorway around the city centre. Originally, city walls symbolized the spatial and political unity of a city, and their dismantlement often implied their integration into a larger political entity, whilst still safeguarding (at least part of) its local autonomy. Interestingly, in the case of Brussels, today, the city that once had two walls, has no walls left, and little political unity or local autonomy.

The political-institutional structure of Brussels was strongly determined by the ongoing Belgian regionalization process. The status of the city has been (and still is) one of the most contested elements of the successive state reforms. Being the country’s capital, geographically situated in (some would say ‘surrounded by’) Flanders, the Northern region, but with a majority of French-speaking Belgians (the language spoken in Wallonia, the Southern region)[3] explains the contested nature of the city.

Without elaborating too much on the Belgian state reforms, these reforms did decide on the structure (and complexity) of the Brussels’ city administration. One of the main principles of the state reforms was the construction of two types of political entities: Regions (based on a territorial principle, with competences as agriculture, economy, energy or housing) and Communities[4] (based on a linguistic-cultural principle, with cultural and persons-related competences, such as education, youth and also media). Although it took Brussels 10 years longer than the other two, three Regions were eventually created: the Flemish Region (the North of the country), the Walloon Region (the South of the country) and the Brussels Capital Region. For each of these Regions, parliaments and governments were established, although the Capital Region administration was attributed less and different competences than the other two Regions.

On the level of the second political entity (the Communities), the situation was (and is) very different, as there was no political agreement to recognize Brussels as a separate Community. Only three linguistic-culturally based Communities were created, excluding Brussels: the Flemish Community, the French-speaking Community and the German-speaking Community (the latter is in the East of the country), again each with their respective parliaments and governments[5]. In the case of Brussels, both the Flemish and the French-speaking Community exercise their linguistic-cultural competencies on the territory of the Brussels Capital Region. A bi-communitarian public authority, the Common Community Commission, is responsible for matters that affect both Communities (such as health policy and assistance to individuals – see Belgische staat, 2004: 70213). The political-institutional complexity is increased further by the absence of a single Brussels’ municipality. To be more exact, Brussels consists out of 19 municipalities (which each have a mayor) and 6 inter-municipal policing zones. In addition, the presence of the European institutions, and the status of Brussels as capital of Europe adds another layer of complexity.

This combination of European, Federal, Regional, Community-level, and Municipal institutions, all competent on a number of matters, creates a considerable institutional fragmentation in Brussels (Maskens, 2008: 1-2). Especially the lack of a Brussels’ Community, and the authority of the Flemish and French-speaking Communities at the linguistic-cultural level in Brussels’, undermine Brussels’ political autonomy and have not always guaranteed political decisions that were in the interest of the city, despite the efforts of a number of individual politicians and administrations. The language and identity politics of the Flemish and French-speaking Communities have not always served Brussels’ interest, partially because the two Communities have different approaches. The French-speaking Community considers Brussels as an urban setting with a predominant francophone population, while the Flemish Community defines Brussels as a capital region where both language communities should be treated equally, independently of the numeric (dis)proportion of Dutch-speaking Belgians (Detant, 2001: 351). The end result seems to be a Brussels divided in two homogeneous language groups, ignoring internal differences and the language diversity (including the Arab and English  languages) that characterizes the city. This complex institutional constellation also strongly contrasts with the everyday life in the city, where a wide variety of very different people do constitute an urban community and still live in a translocal city with its own (now permeable and imaginary) city walls.

5. A Brussels dialogue: BBOT-BNA (‘Brussels Belongs To Us’)

The institutional fragmentation of Brussels in combination with the language politics of the Flemish and French-speaking Communities raise questions about the conditions of possibility of a democratic-communicative Brussels. A number of organizations do attempt to support this democratic-communicative utopia, but also have to function within the complex institutional context described above. An important moment for them was the year 2000, when Brussels became the Cultural Capital of Europe. As the central theme of this event also referred to bringing citizens and artists together (Interview with Decleire), a number of (especially cultural) initiatives, united in a platform called Brussels 2000, of which many were experimenting with participatory methods, received a substantial amount of financial support. One of the initiatives that grew out of this bilingual Brussels 2000 platform is BBOT-BNA. As a small non-profit organization, BBOT-BNA created an online and bilingual database to collect urban conversations, recorded by ordinary people living in Brussels. In a folder, the organization presents its objectives as follows:

‘Brussels Belongs To Us, it’s almost as simple as saying hello. It’s choosing to take the time to talk with someone close to you or to a stranger, to listen to him, to discuss, to introduce your point of view, to communicate your feelings. To record and to distribute that conversation. To participate in that immense mosaic of a city narrated by its inhabitants. The same streets, but not the same trajectories. The same city but not the same lives.’ (BBOT-BNA, 2006: 22 – the authors’ translation)

One of the central objectives of BBOT-BNA is to facilitate the participation of the inhabitants of Brussels, by stimulating them to talk to each other and to record these conversations. Participants also edit the conversations themselves and then upload them into the database (together with the necessary metadata). The audio files are posted anonymously and everybody can freely create a login to access all audio files. Participants can themselves select the theme of the conversation, but BBOT-BNA does require that the participants are inhabitants from Brussels, and that they use Dutch and/or French. Today, almost 2000 digitalized conversations have been stored in the BBOT-BNA database (Interview with Claes), and not surprisingly, the city itself is a popular topic.

Two permanent and one temporary collaborators manage the database, set up collaborations with for instance local artists, organize workshops and generate new projects. BBOT-BNA also has a physical location, a so-called ‘Magasin’ (‘Shop’), where the recording material can be obtained and where the uploading facilities are located. If necessary, participants are also trained in using the technologies that are made available to them.

BBOT-BNA not only focuses on individual ‘ordinary’ inhabitants. Mainly artists, but also other local organizations, are encouraged and actively approached to use the available audio material for their own work. As the initial BBOT-BNA project was developed by two theatre groups, Dito’Dito and Transquinquennal (one Dutch and one French-speaking group)(Interview with Decleire), this continued artistic focus does not come as a surprise. One of the BBOT-BNA staff members, Van Wichelen, explains this as follows:

‘We see everybody that comes in as a potential participant and as a potential artist. It is the idea to encourage as much as persons as possible to do something with this Brussels’ material, with what people say to do something artistic with it.’ (Interview with Van Wichelen – the authors’ translation)

For example in 2001, BBOT-BNA participated in the installation THE ROOM of artist Alexandra Dementieva, which consisted of an interactive room filled with BBOT-BNA conversations. In 2005 and 2006, BBOT-BNA collaborated with an artists’ laboratory (called the Kronik Brusseloise) in a project entitled Nadine. Being organized in several municipalities, Nadine aimed to bring inhabitants and artists together to talk about everyday life in Brussels. And in 2007 Walk the Walk, an audio promenade about how people walk and fall in the city, was created together with artist Ann Van De Vyvere.

Also other projects have been organized by BBOT-BNA, for instance to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brussels’ 1958 world exhibition. One Expo ’58 project was a blind date website[6] to bring people in contact with persons who had been to Expo ’58 (and of course record their conversations). One ongoing project is the collaboration with the alternative (university) radio station Radio Campus, which broads a mix of Dutch and French conversations, although it is only licensed by the French-speaking Community.

Through the online database and its projects, BBOT-BNA aims to facilitate the production and diffusion of oral urban stories, which represent the diversity of the Brussels urban community, crossing linguistic-political frontiers. Secondly, BBOT-BNA’s participatory digital storytelling practices also value a bottom-up approach, which allows inhabitants to record, edit, and upload their own stories, conversations and self-representations. Although the database could be made more user-friendly, the reach of the organization remains fairly limited and the power balance between BBOT-BNA staff and participants requires permanent care, these core principles still make BBOT-BNA an alternative media organization, which empowers inhabitants to produce their own media content, and which diffuses a counter-hegemonic representation of Brussels as a urban community (and not as a linguistically divided city).

Both core principles are (politically speaking) not to be taken for granted, which then raises questions on how BBOT-BNA, being dependant on government subventions, legitimizes its continued existence in a political context which is potentially hostile (or at least insensitive) to BBOT-BNA’s core objectives. This is not an obvious situation, as even the name of the organization is not considered neutral and creates difficulties at the level of interpretation:

‘You can’t deny that the name is a huge statement, a statement that is often wrongly interpreted. We, us, you? […] But in fact we mean us, everybody, we always have to explain that.’ (Interview with Claeys – authors’ translation)

6. Negotiating for subventions

From a policy-perspective, BBOT-BNA is working within the domain of ‘person-related competences’, areas for which the Flemish and French-speaking Communities are responsible. Both Communities make subventions available in order to finance civil society organizations to implement (some of) their policy objectives. Many of these subventions are project-based, and BBOT-BNA has in its eight years of existence, never managed to acquire structural (non project-based) funding.

When Brussels 2000 came to an end in 2001 (and with it the financial resources related to Brussels 2000), BBOT-BNA became dependant on subventions for small projects from both the Flemish and French-speaking Community. This is in itself already an uncomfortable situation (with hardly any financial security and a continuous search for money as a result), but the potential conflict between BBOT-BNA’s core principles and the Communities’ policy objectives make the situation ever more hazardous. Before dealing with BBOT-BNA’s coping strategies, we first need to elaborate the institutional context – this time specifically in relation to the subvention policies – in which BBOT-BNA has to operate.

6.1. The Communities’ subvention policies

Subventions are of course one of the many policy instruments the Communities have at their disposal. This also implies that the political objectives of a Community’s institutions will be translated into these subvention policies. In this part of the article, we will focus on the Flemish Community, and not go into the similarities and differences with the French-speaking Community. Two important texts that regulate the Flemish Community subventions’ policy in Brussels will be used here to briefly sketch the Flemish Community’s institutional position. The first document is the 2003 Subvention guide of the Flemish Community (called Subsidiegids Vlaamse projecten voor Brussel) and the second one is the Declaration of Policy Priorities for Brussels for 2007- 2008 (called Beleidsbrief Brussel. Beleidsprioriteiten 2007-2008), by the Flemish minister responsible for Culture, Youth, Sport and Brussels.

In order to be eligible for Flemish Community subventions, initiatives must first of all reinforce the Flemish presence in Brussels and secondly strengthen the recognition of Brussels as the capital of Flanders (Anciaux, 2003: 3). As Brussels is not seen as a separate entity, but always in relation to Flanders or to the international community, transcending the local is deemed important. Stimulating the visibility of Flanders in Brussels and the meaning of Brussels for Flanders, are inscribed as important policy objectives, and legitimized by the hostilities between the different governmental levels. In the Policy Priorities document of the Flemish minister for Culture, Youth, Sport and Brussels, the following legitimization can be found:

‘Different than the situation in Flanders, the Flemish government is put in a competitive position in the capital. Her competences, although entirely legitimate, are not evident. Namely because some other governments have similar competences. The Brussels Regional government, in symbiosis with the municipalities enters onto the terrain of the Community. Moreover, the other [non-Dutch speaking] media produce a very stained image of the Flemish Community.’ (Anciaux, 2007: 5 – authors’ translation)

Nevertheless, in the same document we also find the minister’ intention to pay attention to projects that are aimed at bilingual cooperation. But for these types of projects, the other Community’s co-financing of the project remains a requirement (Anciaux, 2003: 4), which is not easy to obtain, given the different policies of both communities.

6.2. BBOT-BNA’s strategies

In this part of the article we want to analyse the strategies used by BBOT-BNA to deal with the requirements generated by the institutional context (the Flemish and French-speaking Communities’ policies on Brussels), without giving up on their core principles (related to participation and the Brussels’ urban community). How do they negotiate their position between the utopia of a Brussels democratic-communicative city as an urban community and the language (and media) politics of both Communities?

6.2.1. Strategy 1: The organizational structure of BBOT-BNA

First of all, BBOT-BNA has created a double organizational structure, just as several other organizations that work with both Communities have done. There are two different legal entities behind BBOT-BNA, each recognized by one of the Communities. Because there are actually two non-profit organizations, applications for subventions can be sent to one of the two subsidizing Communities. Because of the absence of clear regulation concerning bilingual and bi-communitarian organizations, a regulatory vacuum exists, which BBOT-BNA puts to its benefit.

‘It is crazy because Belgium is still a bilingual country. […] But in some sectors we got answer as: “But you are a bilingual organization, we cannot give you structural financial support.” […] Then we tell them that it is the Flemish organization that asks for subventions and then they opprobriously say “ah, the trick with the two organizations.” When we reply that we have no choice in Brussels, they say that they of course know. (Interview with Van Wichelen – authors’ translation).

But the double organizational structure causes several difficulties. As the same people work for both organizations, their workload is increased because of the need to split their administrations and accounting systems, which is worsened by the existence of different regulations (for NGOs and for project applications). This creates frustration as it reduces the time that can be spent on the actual projects. A rather paradoxical consequence of choosing for a bilingual organization is that it also indirectly restricts the organization to those two languages. Due to the shortage of financial support and permanent collaborators (and the need for them to master the used languages), BBOT-BNA claims that it is too difficult to incorporate more languages in the database.

6.2.2. Strategy 2: Searching for financial resources in unlikely places, and adapting to the requirements

A second strategy that BBOT-BNA uses is to look for financial resources in unlikely places, as there are not always specific funds available. For instance in the Flemish Community, little attention (and support) for participatory (alternative or community) media organizations exists. Moreover, funds that stimulate the development of a Brussels’ urban community are (for reasons discussed above) absent.

The chameleon strategy that BBOT-BNA uses is to produce project applications that fit into the realm of other specific subvention funds, that (with some tweaking) still allow for the (at least partial) realization of the organization’s objectives. Through the years, BBOT-BNA has applied with several subvention funds (and in the past years was granted funding on several occasions).

In the case of the Flemish Community, these funds were the fund for social-artistic work and (more recently) the heritage fund. In the case of the French-speaking Community, these funds were the fund to aid radiophonic creation but also the fund for permanent education. Each of the applications required different angles, and a translation of the organizational objectives to fit into the policy objectives in which the specific funds are embedded. This strategy has not always worked, as the different administrations that manage these funds (and the subvention application evaluators) have questioned the eligibility of their applications and redirected them to other institutions. In other cases (like the 2006-2007 socio-artistic fund application) their application was simply rejected, as they could not always perfectly meet all requirements in a satisfactory way (interview with Van Wichelen).

6.2.3. Strategy 3: Chameleon strategies to please the Community

Whatever subvention channel BBOT-BNA is using, the organization still needs to find ways to (seemingly) comply with the Communities’ policy objectives (as discussed above). As BBOT-BNA also wishes to realize its own objectives, BBOT-BNA has to find a way to frame its objectives in a way that is acceptable for the Communities’ administrations. Like a chameleon, the organization has to take on the right colour in order to survive.

To illustrate this, we can take a closer look at the last subvention application of BBOT-BNA for the year 2008, submitted with the heritage fund (BBOT-BNA, 2007). This rather technical proposal concentrates on improving the database. More specifically, the proposal aims to expand the database’s metadata possibilities, which will allow to spatially map the database’s information, and to facilitate the sharing of the database’s architecture.

Remarkable is that the critique of the Flemish Community administration on an earlier (but rejected) proposal is included in the proposal. This critique questioned the relevance of that earlier project for Flanders. The critique also refers to the too strong local focus of the project. In the new proposal, BBOT-BNA first mentions that these earlier critiques will not be addressed, but then does explicitly argue why the new proposal is relevant for Flanders (when explaining that the database architecture is relevant for the entire ‘heritage field’). Also, all project partners (with the exception of a federal institution and the two bilingual organizations that will provide technical support) are either from the North of Belgium or from the Netherlands.

In the proposal BBOT-BNA makes strategic changes to the way it presents its identity. The bilingual organization’s focus on the Brussels’ urban community is less present. Within the subvention negotiation process, the organization includes several discursive elements that are necessary in order to fit into the institutional logics of the Communities. BBOT-BNA’s proposal for instance focuses on the (further development of the) ‘innovative’ database as a tool of international relevance, both by resorting to international open source frameworks and standards (Dublin Core system, Bricks, JeromeDL, …) and by suggesting the applicability and exportability of the database for/to other (international) organizations. Moreover, the proposal has an economic rationale, by pointing to the limited costs (and the many that will benefit) and to the previous investments made by the Flemish Community. In contract, the increase of the participatory potential of the database is only briefly discussed, and covered by a focus on technology development and innovation. Still, this chameleon strategy does leave enough room for the organization to protect its own objectives. One detail that symbolizes BBOT-BNA’s opportunities is that they continue to use its bilingual abbreviation, and not their official Dutch name ‘Brussel Behoort Ons Toe vzw’.

7. Conclusion

The objectives of media organizations like BBOT-BNA that address a Brussels urban community and want to stimulate its inhabitants’ participation, and the subsidizing institutions that are active in Brussels, do not always match well. It is highly unfortunate that the construction of a democratic-communicative city is (amongst a series of factors) hindered by the city’s institutional structure and logics. Despite the cultural reality of a Brussels’ urban community (with its many differences and conflicts), working across linguistic-cultural and political-ideological frontiers seems to remain extremely difficult in Brussels.

This does raise strategic questions for participatory bilingual organizations like BBOT-BNA. These media organizations (despite the many problems they face on a daily basis) remain crucial for reinforcing the democratic potential of an urban community, but especially the Flemish Community shows little interest in the democratic role for participatory alternative media. Secondly, BBOT-BNA’s acknowledgement of the existence of an urban community, which needs to have its voices heard as a community, also finds little echoes at the institutional level. In contrast, sometimes there is institutional resistance against the development of an urban identity.

Given these difficult political-institutional circumstances, and still being dependant on government funding, BBOT-BNA has developed a number of chameleon strategies when addressing these subsidizing institutions. In the discourses launched at the subsidizing French-speaking and Flemish Communities, BBOT-BNA’s engagement to the development of a Brussels urban community is not made explicit. Secondly, although one of the main objectives of BBOT-BNA is to enhance citizen participation, this objective is often reframed to fit into the existing subvention channels. BBOT-BNA then becomes a social-artistic project, an oral heritage project, a radio project or a permanent education project. Its formal objectives need to change according to the facet that one of the administrations is emphasizing. Although one can wonder why no combined funding has been implemented, the chameleon strategies remain time-consuming activities that only show the lack of (formal) appreciation for BBOT-BNO’s core principles and objectives.

At the same time the organization does seem to be able to use the institutional complexity (which sometimes resembles chaos) to its advantage. The absence of a (clear) definition and delineation of the Brussels urban community also generates the freedom to create it, and to build a communicative city in the urban underground. When borders are not clearly fixed, it does become possible to shift them.


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BBOT-BNO case-study data material

Interview with Van Wichelen, A., 6th of February 2008, Brussels.

Interview with Claeys, M., 27th of March 2008, Brussels.

Interview with Decleire, P., 27th of March 2008, Brussels.

BBOT-BNA (2007) Levend geheugen in de virtuele realiteit: ontsluiting van (meta) verhalen. Subsidieaanvraag Vlaamse Gemeenschap 2008.


[1] Dutch refers to the language spoken in the North of Belgium (an area called Flanders) and the Netherlands. The word ‘Flemish’ (sometimes also used to refer to the language spoken in the North of Belgium) is reserved in this article for the official name of two of Belgium’s political institutions, namely the Flemish Community and the Flemish Region.

[2] Community-oriented and participatory media content can also be generated by mainstream and commercial media organizations (Deuze, 2006: 272), although the participatory intensity of this process remains often limited.

[3] Recent research showed that French is spoken by 95% of the inhabitants of the city. English comes second with 35%. Dutch only comes third, being spoken by 30% (Van Parijs, 2007: 6-7).

[4] When referring to the political entity, ‘Community’ (with a capital) will be used. When referring to the sociological notion of community, no capital will be used.

[5] In practice, the institutions of the Flemish Region and Flemish Community are grouped into a single parliamentary and a single governmental body.



Maaika Santana graduated from the Communication Studies Department at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in 2007 with a MA thesis researching the discourses of resistance used by different alternative Peruvian radios. She joined the VUB research centre CeMeSo in November 2007, and continues to study alternative media with a research project focusing on citizen participation in regional and alternative media in Brussels. The aim of this project is to investigate the construction of political identities through the media practices of these Brussels’ media and to conceptualise how they organise different forms of participation.

Nico Carpentier is an assistant professor working at the Communication Studies Department of the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He is co-director of the VUB research centre CeMeSo and a board member of the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA). His theoretical focus is on discourse theory, his research interests are situated in the relationship between media, journalism, politics and culture, especially towards social domains as war & conflict, ideology, participation and democracy.

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