We’re packed into stands on opposite sides of a vast exhibition hall on the outskirts of Mons, Belgium. There are no windows and it’s all rather dark and gloomy. There are no signs of creativity. In fact, were it not for the guest list I was holding that stated the presence of leading artists, museum directors, choreographers and architects – presumably sitting somewhere in the dark cavernous hall - I could well have wondered if I’d walked into the wrong event.
Two hours later and my doubts had been totally dispelled. The huge space had been filled with more creativity than I have ever before seen at a press conference. It felt like a mini opening ceremony for London 2012, particularly when an open-top double decker bus full of British quirkiness arrived in the exhibition hall - think the Queen waving from the front of the upper deck, techno music blaring out, umbrellas, Sherlock Holmes, policemen on stilts…! But no, this was not the prelude to the Olympic Games, it was the launch of the cultural programme for Mons as European Capital of Culture next year: Mons 2015.
The launch event included the tricky choreography of several local buses arriving in the hall, each illustrating a different Mons 2015 theme through the words lit up on its destination board and the people and props that emerged from each vehicle.
One bus was filled with sunflowers and had the words ‘I’m called Vincent. And you?’. Vincent Van Gogh lived for a time in the Mons area and it was there that he decided to become an artist. Cue visits to the house where he lived and an exhibition on the sources of his inspiration. Another bus said ‘I sing for Mons. And you?’ Standing on the roof was a singer dressed as the Renaissance composer Orlando di Lassus, who was born in Mons in the 1500s. One of the related events will be 700 amateur and professional choral singers gathering on the steps of the town’s Sainte-Waudru collegiate church. And as for the British double-decker, it represented London, which will be one of eight global cities featured in La Maison Folie (the Madness House).
In total Mons will organise some 1,000 cultural and artistic activities throughout the year. Many big Belgian names have got involved, including choreographer Frédéric Flamand, who founded the Charleroi Danses company, artist Arne Quinze, renowned for his large outdoor installations, and the designer and illustrator François Schuiten, best known perhaps for his comic strip work.
There will be no shortage of development projects happening in the town, with five new museums opening in Mons and a brand new train station designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava – and set to rival another of his creations, the futuristic train station in another Walloon town, Liège.
In its own words, Mons plans to undergo a metamorphosis. The town wants Mons 2015 to bring about positive change that will last well beyond 2015. As the outgoing Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo explained in his opening speech, Mons has undergone difficult economic times in recent decades with the collapse of the industrial age. Mons 2015 will enable the former coal-mining area to turn the page and start to write a new and prestigious chapter, he said. “Mons 2015 will not be an end in itself; it will be the start of a new era,” said Di Rupo, who is also the official mayor of Mons.
So, as the six local buses, which by the close of the launch were all parked at one end of the hall, said on their destination boards:
I am from Mons
She is from Mons
He is from Mons
Everyone is from Mons