The presence of the past

A Guide to Cultural Commemoration

CON-FRONT premiere - Le Grand Mix Tourcoing    © David Tabary

Memory cannot simply be kept alive, it must always be renewed. (Aleida Assmann)


This guide to cultural commemoration is the final result of the international CON-FRONT project which ran from 2018-2020. It is based on the project partner’s experiences and the project’s results. It aims to serve as a practical roadmap for all organizations, looking for ways to interpret or commemorate a historical event or legacy through artistic creation. 


Although the experiences collected in this guide are rooted within the collective memory and history of World War I, it transcends this particular historical era. The guide is meant to be a practical and hands-on tool for any organization in search for the commemoration of a historical event through the performing arts such as music, dance and theatre and all other multi/trans or interdisciplinary forms. Its main focus is on the creation part.

This guide targets:


  • Cultural organizations (public or private such as music venues, cultural centers, theaters, orchestra’s, choirs, etc.)
  • Cultural heritage partners (such as museums, heritage institutions, research centers)
  • Governments (local, regional and national) and municipalities
  • Other organizations (for example educational institutions, youth organizations, etc.)

Excerpt from Hey Youth, a film by Chiara Caterina on the CON-FRONT creation process - premiere Le Grand Mix - Tourcoing



© David Tabary


Imagining war is the curse of our violent world; we have no choice but to face that task with as much intelligence, compassion, and courage as we can. (Jay Winter)

The CON-FRONT project ran from May 2018 to April 2020. The project was supported in the Creative Europe programme within the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018. Behind it were three music venues (Le Grand Mix in France, 4AD in Belgium and MKC in North-Macedonia) and one cultural heritage partner, Walk of Peace Foundation in Slovenia. The partnership was situated along the historical World War I frontline.

CON-FRONT teaser


CON-FRONT’s main task was to explore new ways of cultural commemoration of historical events, in this particular case The First World War. The biggest realization in the project is the audiovisual creation. It toured through Europe in the fall of 2019.

The CON-FRONT partners selected eight young pop rock musicians and visual artists from the four countries. Together they created a composition in which music and images are inseparably linked. They did this under the guidance of the Belgian Mathijs Bertel. 


The piece tells the universal story of citizens who are affected by conflict and are therefore forced to leave their homes. The Great War raged over the entire European continent. We find the same traces in the landscape everywhere along the front line. From Nieuwpoort in Belgium, over Kobarid in Slovenia to Doiran in North-Macedonia, millions of civilians fled the war. The same narrative is shared.

During their residencies, the artists were inspired not only by the stories at the WWI front, but also by the Yugoslavian Wars, the Greek Civil War and the current refugee crisis.


The performance was accompanied by Hey Youth, a short documentary by Italian film maker Chiara Caterina, who followed this young collective during their creation process. The film was co-produced by Le Fresnoy – The National Arts Studio in Tourcoing, France.




Live performance and film: view here


I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things (Tom Waits)

One of CON-FRONT’s main ambitions was to look for alternative ways of cultural commemoration while creating better awareness on a common European history. Imagination and suggestion were key words in this approach. Collective memory and identity materialized throughout the creation process, which was backed by solid historical facts. 


Artistic experience can serve as a transformative and mind-blowing exploration of a shared history or theme. Without trivializing, dehumanizing or even glorifying, it and can be a powerful and convincing medium. We hope this modest guide will support organizations in this noble ambition.

CON-FRONT residency #2 - Tolmin (SI)   © Koen Quintyn

To remember the past is to work on the future (Aleida Assmann)


CON-FRONT premiere - Le Grand Mix Tourcoing   © David Tabary


Subject of commemoration

Start with a well-defined theme or event you wish to commemorate. This can be a particular historical event (a treaty, a battle, liberation), or a broader historical theme (e.g. decolonization, the Bosnian War, holocaust). Make sure your focus is clear and distinct from the start.


Define the artistic medium you would like to use. Is it exclusively music or dance? Or do you want to create a work of art merging various disciplines. Both medium and subject will determine the additional partners you will need in terms of expertise and knowledge. 



If you lack expertise in any of the domains (be it historically, technically or artistically), go search for experienced and reliable partners. Make solid agreements on tasks, budget allocation or remunerations in a preferably physical meeting.

Target group

Outline the main target group. Why and to whom do you reach out with your end result? Is it a broad audience or a specific group (e.g. young people, a contemporary or a classical music audience). The target group will strongly determine the artistic part of the creation (see further).


End product

Whatever medium you envisage (e.g. a performance or a record), start to work in an early stage on the promotion and the dissemination of this end product. Define editions, number of performances and partnerships for co-producing or staging. Make sound agreements from the early start.


Draw a realistic timeline, foreseeing sufficient time for preparation, creation and dissemination. Involve your partners in this timeline. Depending on the size of the project and the work method, make sure that there is at least 2 and a maximum of 18 months creation time. 



Draw a realistic budget with, taking into account the costs for the artists, the artistic director, supporting partners, the creation process and a performance(s) of the result. If you choose residencies as a work method, make sure to foresee sufficient travel and hospitality costs as well as costs for technical equipment or work space. A realistic portion of the budget is dedicated to general staff costs and to the communication and dissemination of the result. Always keep a reserve budget for unforeseen costs.


Archive footage CON-FRONT creation


Artistic leader – closed procedure (1)

In case of the choice for a temporary collective, the role of the artistic leader or director is vital. The artistic leader will function as an important link in the creation process, carefully balancing between giving sufficient oxygen and making sharp artistic decisions when needed. He/she is not necessarily an expert on the envisaged topic. He or she is a cultural figure with (international) recognition and a broad network.




Artistic leader – closed procedure (2)

In case of a multidisciplinary creation, be careful to choose an artistic leader who has sufficient affinity with all represented art media. In case of several media, the choice can be made to commission a duo of artistic leaders. Try to avoid to appoint a person closely linked to the organization. 



Artistic leader – closed procedure (3)

In addition the artistic leader is also and above all a people manager, fitted with great communicational, organizational end emotional skills.

The artistic director is selected directly by the partners through a closed procedure. A contract stipulates all agreements on tasks, timings and remunerations. 



Artists – open call (1)

In the case of a temporary collective, all artists are ideally selected through an open call. You can find an example of the CON-FRONT call here.

Let the artistic director take the final decision in this selection.

If your artists have different backgrounds (e.g. jazz or pop/rock or musicians and visual artists), make sure that they have the right skills or the experience to work cross-disciplinary.


Artists – open call (2)

Meet your selected artists before contracting them. Have a face-to-face in-depth interview in advance to explain about the theme, the goals and the expectations.

Draw a contract to stipulate all agreements on tasks, timings and remunerations. 



A fair remuneration is foreseen for both artists and the artistic leader(s), based on the average daily rate in the particular country in the concerned sectors. An estimation of creation days is to be made in advance. Performance fees are separate from the creation fee.

The creation fee is ideally divided in an advance (at the beginning of the commission) and a balance (after the commission is finished). Additional material costs or rental of equipment are covered separately, unless agreed differently.

Draw a contract to stipulate all agreements on tasks, timings and remunerations. 

Doiran, North-Macedonia - WWI front and current border with Greece   © Chiara Caterina



Take sufficient time to do the historical research on the selected topic. Either do this yourself or give a commission to one of your (supporting) partners in the project.

Make a selection of archive material (written, oral, audiovisual) or places to visit that can serve as an inspiration for your artists. Do not overwhelm them with facts and figures. Direct contact with historians or witnesses or guided visits on site or preferred over plain text. 




Lieux de mémoire/places of memory (1)

Landscapes and landmarks can be very powerful places to nourish cultural commemoration. The concept of lieux de mémoire is at the very centre of this working method. The French historian Pierre Nora developed this idea. In Nora's words, a lieu de mémoire is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community. 




Lieux de mémoire/places of memory (2)

It may refer to any place, object or concept vested with historical significance in the popular collective memory such as cultural landmarks, landscapes, places, practices and expressions stemming from a shared past, whether material (monuments) or intangible (language and traditions).





Narrow down all experiences and collected historical material to one common narrative that will serve as a base for the creation. Let artists and their artistic leader decide on this narrative together. Make this decision in the first half of the creation process as it can be a tough one to find consensus about and it is a key element for the creation. 





As Aleida Assmann pointed out: to remember the past is to work on the future. Letting people reflect on a common legacy, can create new insights that might be valuable to understand current political, sociological, cultural or ecological themes and issues. Knowledge of this common legacy is also essential to empower people with engagement and empathy. A better comprehension of the past is important to understand the present. Contemporary cultural commemoration should bear this in mind, while seeking relevance and a sustainable future.



Artist discussion during CON-FRONT residency #1 - 4AD - Diksmuide (BE)   © Chiara Caterina



Anticipate sufficient time for the creation process as it includes, apart from becoming acquainted with the topic and with the other artists and the artistic director, also sufficient creation and rehearsal time. Ideally there is at least 2 and a maximum of 18 months creation time.



If you choose to work with artist residencies as a work form, make sure all technical requirements are covered, as well as the availability of multiple creation and rehearsal rooms and a place to rest. Draw a strict schedule for the period(s) and include enough time for the artists to repose as well. Do not wear them out as these residencies can be intense. 


Method (1)

It’s up to the director to develop his or her artistic method, as this can differ because of the nature of the collective and the nature of the creation (multi, inter or transdisciplinary). It’s important that the themes, the subject and the framework are transparent. Artists should be able to work without limits but in a well-defined context.



Method (2)

Encouraging individual artists to collaborate as a collective takes more than working on an artistic theme. Letting them spend time together is crucial. Getting to know each other as a person ensures better (artistic) cooperation.

In the case of combining different disciplines, keep in mind that each one has its proper approach and way of working that can differ from the other. 




Listen to the artists and the artistic leader. Demand feedback on a regular basis and try to follow the creation process closely but without interfering too much. Detect any noise or problems in an early stage and dare to intervene when necessary, with respect for all parties. 



Technical requirements

Keep an eye on the technical requirements of the artists during the creation process, especially regarding the performance which will most likely be the end result. Make technical riders, stage plans, light plans, etc. Organize a try-out for a selected audience at the end of the creation process. Make sure there is enough time to rehearse and to adapt. 


CON-FRONT premiere - Le Grand Mix Tourcoing   © David Tabary


This guide is the collective work of the CON-FRONT partners.