Johannes Ebert am 12. März 2019
Projekt Freiraum in Berlin

Keynote of Johannes Ebert for the presentation of the Freiraum project in Berlin

Dear Mr. Görgen, dear Mr. Schwarz, dear Mr. Einhoff, dear Freiraum partners, dear colleagues and guests!

As the General Secretary of the Goethe-Institute, a global cultural institution, I am used to being on the road. I’m spending about 1/3 of my working time abroad. So travelling is an integral part of my everyday life. Hotels and airports are places very familiar to me. But despite this fact, one journey in the recent months has remained particularly clear in my mind.

On a Friday in December I flew from Munich to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where I spent an afternoon and an evening, to take part in the presentation of two documentaries at the Museum of Contemporary Art - thank you for the great evening!

Of these films, one asks questions on everyday life, visions and experiences of Macedonians in Denmark, the other one about the urban planning in Skopje. You can see both films here tomorrow evening. These films were created as part of the Europe-wide Freiraum project having been promoted by the Goethe-Institute since 2017, and I have the great pleasure of presenting this project to you today.

We are guided by the following questions: What does freedom mean in today's Europe? Where is freedom at risk? And how can we strengthen it?

Back to Skopje: In 1963 the city was destroyed by an earthquake. In the subsequent years, it was re-erected in the form of fascinating, brutalist concrete architecture. But walking through the city centre in the evening, you discover a little of this architectural heritage: Oversized statues of a national mother or of the hero Phillip II., hundreds of other statues, huge historicising buildings illuminated by colourful lights, and a triumphal arch emerging from the urban nothingness push the Ottoman remains and the brutalist architecture of the 60s - such as the Opera House at the Vardar River - aside.

“Skopje 2014” is the name of this urban transformation promoted by the former president Nikola Gruevski. He invested 400 million euros in turning this imagined national identity into stone. Then he was imprisoned because of corruption. A few days before our visit in December, he fled to Hungary. The very next morning, we continued on to Manchester where we flew via Istanbul. Such detour seems unusual, but this flight connection was the best one.

Before we touched down in Manchester, it had already begun to dawn. It was raining. We drove through the darkness once again for two hours until we reached Carlisle. Carlisle, a medium-sized town with 70,000 inhabitants, is located in the extreme north of England, not far from Hadrian's Wall and the border to Scotland.

We barely spent one and a half days there. We visited a youth centre and an art gallery, and the fortress where Mary Stuart was imprisoned. From afar, we saw men and women, dressed as Santa Clauses, running a half-marathon and wonder on Saturday evening how young Englishwomen can leave their houses without stockings, even on a December night. Since we didn't want to be among our peers all the time, we drank beer in a pub where music deafened our ears and English flags (not the Union Jack) were hanging from the ceiling.

We spoke with John Stevenson, the conservative Member of Parliament for Carlisle, who voted against Brexit. He explained the vast number of Brexit supporters; that people in the town and surroundings mourn the great British Empire.

Finally, we took part in a Speak Easy Event where over 40 people from Carlisle recited poems, played music and collectively asked themselves the question: "What is isolation, and how can we overcome it?"
There was a live video connection to Thessaloniki during the event so that we could see and hear how the Greek Freiraum partners performed poetry and prose. The different styles and cultural differences of the presentations in England and Greece were truely enriching. Let me thank you, Afdab Kahn and Christos Savvidis, for this!

Four days in Europe, one right in the south-east, and then right in the north-west. And one in the capital of a country that would like to belong to the EU, but still does not - and would even change its name to do so. A small country that once belonged to Yugoslavia and wants to leave the burdensome legacy of the socialist decades behind. Also a country that offers many of its citizens no prospects, with the result that they leave the country for better living and working conditions in Northern Europe. And 3000 kilometres away from Skopje there is the city of Carlisle - in a country which still belongs to the EU, but not for much longer. A country that always offered promise to immigrants. ow it will be difficult. In many ways, Carlisle is the contrary to Skopje. And yet - these two cities also have some similarities. The mountain silhouettes in the distance for example, but above all, their attitudes to the past: seeing rather a fictitious glory than its actual design.

In the 80s, a political scientist Benedict Anderson reflected on such issues in his main book "Imagined Communities". A community larger than a village needs traditions and an idea of itself. And within both of these things there are construct and creation. It becomes dangerous when the past is glorified in order to derive a superiority over other communities.

Another author, Dubravka Ugresic, left Zagreb in the early 1990s, because she could no longer endure the hostile atmosphere and the nationalistic intoxication. Since then, she has lived in Amsterdam. In the collection of essays "The Culture of Lies” Dubravka Ugresic described how the post Yugoslavian societies positioned their imagined pasts in order to amplify the national consciousness at the time.

At that time, in the mid-1990s, she made an important distinction: fascist societies, on the one hand, reliably produced a kitsch invoking a glorious past; socialist societies, on the other hand, evoked a glorious future.

There was a time when we believed that we had left all such things behind us - the regression to a fictitious past, in order to reinforce our own greatness, to assert our identity and to isolate ourselves from others; nationalism, the boundaries, the beliefs, to be superior to others.

In the meantime, nobody is so sure about it. The things we naturally assumed as a matter of course - European presence and future allowing for diversity and, at the same time, bringing about unity and therefore lasting peace,- maximum individual freedom and stable democratic conditions - now seem to be put into question everywhere.

On the other hand we see that European cooperation and integration seem more important and urgent than ever. We need a Europe which is based on values and attitudes such as diversity, tolerance and freedom.

Emanuel Macron said that we have to fight manipulations, proud  and with a clear mind. We have above all to stress that this United Europe is a historic success - the reconciliation  of a destroyed continent by an outstanding project for peace, well-being and freedom. And this project still protects us today.

Europe is also a project of culture and society. Europe is getting stronger through European cooperation, because it is through cooperation that we can understand our fellow European citizens better, what moves them, what are their challenges.

We are talking about cooperations on equal footing and on all levels of society so that we can exercise to be European and strengthen the Europeanness in our societies on the  fundament of our European cultural diversity.

These thoughts were the motives for the Goethe-Institute to start the Freiraum project and you can see the results here.

I was by far not the only one who was part of the movement in the context of this project. There were many encounters between all the locations involved in the Freiraum project.

An anti-Mafia-activist from Rome reconciled himself in Nicosia, where he experienced a deja-vu in front of the fences, fallow land and social buildings in the demilitarized zone between Northern and Southern Cyprus: looks like the Roman periphery!

A young Norwegian woman, whose father arrived in Norway from Gambia, meets a 50-year-old actor from Senegal in Milan, who has lived in Northern Italy for 30 years, and discusses with him how it is to be an African-European in Europe.

There is one matter which they disagree on: how to deal with the racism they are confronted with?
Camara Joof calls for zero tolerance, Moudou Guye is more restrained and willing to compromise.
The members of a women’s choir walk through the 16th Arrondissement in Paris, singing international protest songs. (What they will also do in the Moabit district of Berlin tomorrow afternoon.). All this and much more is considered in the Freiraum project.

Here in Berlin, we present a small part of it to you.

Before the program begins, I would like to wholeheartedly thank those who have made this project possible, for their work and generous support:

Michael Schwarz and his team from the Mercator Foundation, Matthias Einhoff and his team from the Centre of Arts and Urbanism, Our media partners ARTE, "Die Tageszeitung" and Rbb Kulturradio.
And, of course, the Freiraum project management and all my colleagues: Cristina Nord, Maud Qamar, Melanie Bono, Kathrin Sohns, Jakob Racek, Juliane Stegner, Natalia Sartori, Stefanie Heublein, Carolin Nüser, Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska, Stefanie Peter and Luisa Rath.

Thank you very much.
Es gilt das gesprochene Wort.