Interview with the project leaders

Berlin – Warsaw – Mumbai: an unusual constellation

Martin Wälde, project director and director of the Goethe-Institut Warsaw, Tomasz Dabrowski, director of the Polish Institute Berlin, and Marla Stukenberg, director of the Goethe-Institut Mumbai, talk in an interview about cities as dream destinations, about the necessity for Europe to open up to the outside world, and about expanding the two-way cultural dialogue

Since 2007, for the first time there are more people living in cities than in villages – what, in your opinion, is the promise that a city holds out?

The Promised City

Marla Stukenberg: The city not only allows us to project different wishes and ideas but also provokes us into doing so: be it the pressing need to earn a livelihood and secure the survival of the family; or the ambition to chalk out a film career in the Bollywood city; or be it an attempt to break free of tradition and experiment with alternative ways of life in a conducive environment. A range of different forces unleash their energy - from a distance, the metropolis seems like a shining star that one must reach out for in order to survive or to realise a dream.

The promise of the metropolis is, however, not only the “promise of good fortune”; the outrageous and the unimaginable are also an implicit part of the promise: the danger of being a spectacular failure; the risk of experiencing only the dark side of a metropolis with its superficial glitter, and of being destroyed by the behemoth. To me it is almost as though the promise is virtually dependant on the possibility of failure. Over the abyss, over decay and death, we see the metre-high, brightly illuminated billboard - the promise of luck and good fortune that the megalopolis holds out to all those who persevere, who conquer the hostile living space and make it their own, even if it means doing so with their skin and bones.

The village, small town, and countryside are being increasingly shut out of public perception by the large urban conurbations. The political and social discourse is dominated by the metropolitan areas because it is here that the die is cast for all the important decisions that affect the future of the country, the cities, and the villages. It is in the cities that the economic power of the country is concentrated, where dynamic developments are set in motion, where changes are most visible. To live in the cities means to live close to the pulse of time.

The Promised City

Tomasz Dabrowski: Urbanisation is spreading rapidly across the world. People are moving to Mexico City, Mumbai, Warsaw or Berlin because cities are extremely attractive in comparison with peripheral areas. The dramatic urban-rural divide is another major factor. I am referring mainly to lifestyle and to the diversity of what is on offer. In large cities, different lifestyles and interests clash in the smallest possible space and such places offer an extremely attractive mix of culture, entertainment and consumption. The human being is finding it more and more difficult to reflect upon himself and is increasingly on the lookout for the external sensations that cities can offer.

Modern cities enforce and facilitate new forms of social interaction while creating the conditions for the emergence of modern popular culture. Cities have always offered better opportunities for education, profitable jobs or career advancement. Mega cities hold out the promise of escape from poverty. We should also not forget that migration creates a city. The management of the highly fragmented global industrial production and financial services are concentrated in these centres. For places such as these, Saskia Sassen coined the term ‘global city’. And then there is the experience of an encounter between the individual and others. The great Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says that cities are still places “considered paradigmatic of the constant confrontation with diversity as the fundamental experience of the modern era.” After all, “city life is lived among unknown people” whose needs and movements must also be taken into account. This confrontation between diverse lifestyles simultaneously forms the basis for the creativity of urban culture that thrives on moments of surprise and unpredictability.

The Promised City

Martin Wälde: I think we need to look closely at each city on its own in order to find out what makes it so attractive. After all, New York is not the same as Shanghai or Warsaw. However, what is common to cities is the fact they have always been important places of trade and change. A person wanting to flee poverty usually has no option but to follow the promise of work and money that takes him to the city. The world’s large stock exchanges have always been in cities and many cities like Warsaw and Bombay are swamped with gigantic billboards tempting people to buy certain goods. Money, income, consumption are the driving forces of cities, indeed, often of the entire country. Moreover it is usually not just the power of money that is concentrated here, but also the power of the decision-makers in politics, media, knowledge and culture. Yet cities always offer new mental and local spaces for innovative, social and cultural action. Cities constitute a promise in that they open up opportunities for diverse identities in different areas and in different communities to be able to merge all facets of their hybrid selves with the city. In his book The Promise of the City that was published in the US, Kian Tajbakhsh, the Iranian writer sentenced to 12 years imprisonment last year in Tehran, has closely analysed the relationship between space, identity and politics against the background of urban spaces. Cities offer their inhabitants a cosmos of possibilities and space for identification. The “mosaic of small worlds” in a city, as once formulated by Robert Park in the 1920s, is not a well-demarcated or delineated mosaic; it is more a mosaic in which the many different worlds of a metropolis - and with them the individuals living there - assert themselves and overlap irreducibly. Cities thus become experimental fields and laboratories for new opportunities and lifestyles, places where new values are created for the modern era and places for experimental art. The innumerable answers that emerge in the course of daily life and in the environment of a city to the question of what is a good and successful life and to the question of the realm of possibilities offered, make the city what it is – they are its promise, its vision.

In Warsaw and Berlin we have, on the one hand, two European cities that are in the spotlight of The Promised City project. Then the Indian megalopolis Mumbai is surprisingly included. What is it that makes an exploration of these cities in particular so special?

The Promised City

Wälde: When drawing up the concept for The Promised City, we deliberately opened a window to the world outside, outside Europe, that is. For one, this has something to do with the subject, because Bombay, as the financial centre of India, as the dream city of Bollywood, as the migrant melting pot, can bring a plethora of motives to the project, motives that only appear en miniature in the two comparatively small European cities. In a globalising world where cultures are increasingly interdependent, we can ill afford to be self-absorbed, or to want to understand Europe only from within it. We need the external perspective, in this case the Indian one, if we are to cope better with our complex situation and its problems.

As regards Warsaw and Berlin, virtual neighbours in the heart of Europe, I would like to remind people that both capitals were almost completely razed to the ground in 1945, Warsaw to over 80%! One had to start again from scratch, also in terms of vision and reconstructing what had been lost. In both cities, the socialist period then led to the emergence of essentially uniform mono cultures planned exclusively by the state. This applied to urban construction as well; public space was a place for the state to cultivate its image and less a place where citizens could communicate. While all this changed radically in 1989, what were the objectives? Warsaw still does not have a master plan, has not developed any institution that is genuinely in tune with the times, one that would address the city’s future in public discourse in the interests of its citizens. There is much to be done here and with our international project we would like to motivate people into taking action.

The Promised City

Dabrowski: Warsaw and Berlin are the two major poles in our part of Europe. However different they may be, they also have much in common. We need to come to terms with the difficult past and turn our attention to the present and the future. Both Berlin and Warsaw are extremely lively cities that are trying to combine history and architecture, the urban museum landscape, and consumer and cultural scenes into the most attractive image possible for an international public. Culture, creativity, and art, above all, will highlight Berlin’s urban potential - they make the city unique, a genuine metropolis. In Warsaw it is not only about art and culture, but increasingly about hard economics and politics, a combination that makes cities particularly appealing. We want to convey a sense of this vitality and in the process are daring to draw a comparison with Mumbai. I find the Asian perspective extremely refreshing – all said and done, we Europeans often focus too much on ourselves.

The Promised City

Stukenberg: The Promised City project identifies three points on a map of the world and brings them together in an unusual constellation. In this triangle, Mumbai does indeed seem surprising. But this is precisely what appeals to me, as this constellation helps us explore new fields and compels us to base our comparison or analysis on new parameters.

Berlin and Warsaw are linked by a chequered German-Polish history that provides frequent impulses at short intervals for a cultural exchange between the two European cities. The Indian city of Mumbai helps expands the radius of our study of the other city. Asia enters the picture and looks back on the axis between Berlin and Warsaw. Mumbai adds aspects to the project which, given their size and range, highlight many of the issues addressed in the project on a scale that would not be possible in Berlin or Warsaw: Mumbai is India’s largest, most modern and, with 22.7 million inhabitants, most populous metropolitan area besides being the largest migration hub in country: over 50% of its population are migrants, making the Indian city on the Arabian Sea a melting pot of the subcontinent’s different cultures. As India’s trade and administrative centre, as well as business hub for the entire South Asian subcontinent, the densely populated area surrounding Mumbai is a semi-circle of up-and-coming satellite cities. The metropolitan region generates more than a quarter of India’s total income tax and is the business centre of one of the world’s three largest economies. The city is home to the fourth largest stock exchange in the world. In an international comparison, Mumbai has a record-breaking real estate market, which is on a par with London, Tokyo and New York. Mumbai is also an extremely electrifying and inspirational city with a cosmopolitan atmosphere and a pronounced urban life. Young flair and a lively cultural legacy make for a complex hybrid urban culture that wins over virtually every visitor. Entertainment also plays a part - with several established contemporary art galleries along with many new ones, a lively film, cinema, theatre, and music scene, and an up-and-coming club culture – the city offers a 24-hour programme, seven days a week: “Mumbai never sleeps.”

Yet India’s mega city is beset by manifold problems, ranging from an inadequate transport infrastructure to shortfalls and deficiencies in housing, employment, health care, drinking water and electricity, school education and public space to divergent land use interests and property speculation.

In the coming decades, Mumbai will continue to be an exemplary mega city in a globalised world and will greatly expand its role as the gateway to the South Asian subcontinent. At the interface between dynamic economic growth and socio-cultural transformation, Mumbai will most certainly remain one of Asia’s major cities.

It is therefore worth our while to look further afield, beyond Warsaw and Berlin when engaging with The Promised City. The discussion about Berlin and Warsaw is also exciting for Mumbai, with the focus on Warsaw, in particular, being new and inspiring.

You say that “new forms of international cultural collaboration “will be tried out in this project. How are we to understand this?

The Promised City

Stukenberg: The Promised City is a large umbrella project that accommodates the extraordinary. The constellation of the three cities that we have just been talking about will initiate a triangular exchange between artists and experts and will necessitate re-thinking on our part. The two-way cultural dialogue will be expanded and we will find ourselves yet again at a large multi-highway crossing that compels us to look in different directions.

The Promised City

Dabrowski: The Promised City is probably the first cultural project between Berlin and Warsaw that is so broad-based. The alliance between the Polish Institute Berlin and the Goethe-Institut Warsaw is also something new, particularly in the scope of the cooperation. The interdisciplinary nature of the overall concept and the work process involving curators from both sides of the river Oder, define the character of the project. A direct exchange of artworks between Berlin and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, for instance, enables the public to gain a direct and undistorted insight into the cultural life of European neighbours.

The Promised City

Wälde: I do believe it to be a new and important step when the Goethe-Institut does not only send its artists and experts to other countries but also starts to invite non-European intellectuals and artists to Europe. Central and east European cities have moreover virtually never taken a serious look at cultures outside Europe and the US. The provincialism and ethnocentrism in Europe must be overcome in the international cultural collaboration.

Was there anything that you found particularly surprising or exciting while working on The Promised City?

The Promised City

Stukenberg: The German capital and the Indian business centre - distance notwithstanding - are extremely interested in each other, the cultural scenes are establishing contact with each other, and one has is at least some idea of the other side. Similarly, Berlin and Warsaw are already connected in many different ways. But the Mumbai-Warsaw axis of the triangle is the least tested so far. I am very happy to see that there is so much curiosity about each other and that the project enables us as a German cultural institute to send Indian artists and journalists to Poland and to welcome Polish programme partners to Mumbai. If, for example, we invite not only a writer from Berlin to Mumbai but also an author from Warsaw, we are able to portray a small section of Europe and facilitate completely new and diverse contacts.

The Promised City

Wälde: Well, it is above all the many people who have made the project possible and who have got to know each other better during the long preparatory process that did after all stretch over two and a half years. Friendships have emerged and projects have been developed on which people worked together. I find this extremely valuable, particularly the completely new experience of the Goethe-Institut Warsaw collaborating for the first time with the Polish Institute Berlin on a project of this kind. We learned a great deal about ourselves and about our Polish friends. We cleared several hurdles together and sought out new horizons. What I like is that we are genuinely playing the role of neighbours here. An occasional disagreement is then resolved. On our own we would never have been able to achieve so much.

Of course the creativity of the artists, curators and institutions involved has played a part in the success or failure of the project. It was amazing to see the openness and curiosity with which our German and Indian actors engaged with Warsaw, even though most of them had absolutely no prior knowledge of the city. Their research resulted in wonderful ideas for projects – as it is I think research-based projects are by far the most interesting.

With his city tour of Warsaw - two full days and one night for visitors - Boris Sieverts will focus on this city; he spent an entire year engaged in research for the trip which took him to all corners of Warsaw. I think it is also important to involve very young people, as in the theatre project between schools in Warsaw and Berlin, or in the Fortune Seeker – a research project undertaken by young German, Polish and Indian photographers in the three cities. A very promising and unexpected stroke of luck has also been the team of curators for The Knot, a mobile platform for productions, comprising curators from Berlin, Bucharest and Warsaw who came together to elaborate the idea for a project. I also found the research for a video film project and its subsequent production by the Raqs Media Collective from New Delhi particularly fascinating. It was exciting to see how this trio had delved into the details of the history and the socio-economic aspects of Warsaw and Berlin, and the kind of ideas that these artists had developed for their project. To have witnessed this is certainly a privilege. During all the major discussions leading up to the project, we always had Stefanie Peter with her vast experience to advise and help us in the German-Polish projects. This was crucial not only in the early stages but later on too.

The Promised City

Dabrowski: We have certainly learned a lot from each other over the last two years or more. We have repeatedly discovered that a goal can be better reached when one joins hands. This is a lesson that we had already learned in the past when working together with our partners from the Goethe-Institut. In this project, I found it particularly fascinating to see how relaxed the Polish and German curators were when working together. Without the work put in by the two teams, the process would not have been so successful. From my point of view, the collaboration between the two large art institutions – the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and the Museum for Modern Art in Warsaw deserves special attention. The exhibition titled Early Years will certainly be not just the start of the overall project but will also be able to put Polish contemporary art on a more secure footing in the German capital. After the experience of the last Berlin Biennale that was curated by Adam Szymczyk, is follows that the next step should involve Joanna Mytkowska. I also think that the collaborative effort undertaken for The Knot has been quite marvellous. The project reflects life in our modern societies, life that is increasingly determined by rules. To draw attention to alternative forms of behaviour in the city, based on cooperation and self-determination, is one of the main tasks of The Knot.

As for the individuals involved in the project, Martin Wälde is absolutely right. We really should erect a monument to Stefanie Peter in the near future. She has already been decorated with a Polish award. Without her support much of this would not have been possible.

The Promised City ends in October 2010 – what impact can the project have beyond this?

The Promised City

Wälde: The sustainability of the project is one of our key concerns. For a start, we need to take a close look at what happens during the implementation process. Which programmes are convincing, which ones attract the public and what is the response? Above all, we need to listen closely and pay attention to the questions posed and think about whether these questions have any relevance beyond the duration of the project. For Warsaw however it can already be said that the future shape of the city via politics, urban planning, architecture, NGOs, culture, business, media and its citizens will continue to be a burning issue because there is not a single institution that can accomplish this or is able take on this task. With our project experience and with the actors involved we would like to play a part in this - in other words, make use of the relationships that emerge from The Promised City, including the international ones. I can however well imagine us also addressing neglected aspects; city and environment, for example, or new formats which allow the performing arts to intervene in urban spaces and perhaps modify them in the collective consciousness. And The Promised City certainly does not answer the question of possible venues for culture on the outskirts of cities: Where, for instance, should the Goethe-Institut present its artistic productions? Where could one find new cultural spaces? We are also planning to bring out a publication in 2011 on the entire project in all three cities. This will be less of an exhaustive documentation and more of a publication in which we address subsequent questions that crop up.

The Promised City

Dabrowski: Yes, it will be crucial to see how the projects are actually implemented. One can say with certainty that working in groups of international artists or curators is more interesting and one can reach out to a larger public. I am sure that direct collaboration between the artists, curators and other individuals involved in the project has led to lasting networks that will also be there in the future. The interest thus aroused for the ‘other’ city will certainly help create and advance other projects and ideas. The project therefore has the potential to be the foundation stone for future developments. I am thinking primarily of the year 2011, when Warsaw and Berlin will celebrate the tenth anniversary of their twinning arrangement and when Poland assumes the presidency in the Council of the European Union in the second half of the year. We are already in the process of realising other interesting projects.

The Promised City

Stukenberg: The exchange between photographers, writers and journalists creates networks and contacts that can be used by the individuals involved either in future projects or even outside the institutional framework. In concrete terms, the publications planned will also ensure that the impact of the project extends beyond 2010.

The larger urban issues continue to be relevant and urgent and will certainly be taken up again in other further-reaching projects. We must keep an eye open for the impetus given by The Promised City in this context, for new approaches, points of view and issues that may emerge.

The interview was conducted by Annika Frahm

Marla Stukenberg is director of the Goethe-Institut in Mumbai.
Martin Wälde is director of the Goethe-Institut in Warsaw.
Tomasz Dabrowski is director of the Polish Institute Berlin.