Andreas Ströhl on the Kultursymposium Weimar “We want everyone to be in a frenzy”

Fast-Breaking at the first day of Ramadan near Taksim Square in Istanbul.
Fast-Breaking at the first day of Ramadan near Taksim Square in Istanbul. | Photo: Tolga Bozoglu / EPA

The Sharing Game – for three days, that will be all the talk in Weimar. The Goethe-Institut’s Kultursymposium is to blame. In our interview Andreas Ströhl explains what is so unique about the event, why car sharing is culture, too, and why he’s travelling to Weimar with an organ pipe.

Mr Ströhl, from 1 to 3 June, the Goethe-Institut is organizing a cultural symposium, or Kultursymposium, under your supervision in Weimar. It sounds like lots of clever lectures by clever people…

Project manager Andreas Ströhl: “We are relying on unpredictability” Project manager Andreas Ströhl: “We are relying on unpredictability” | Photo: Loredana LaRocca Don’t get the wrong idea! Naturally there will be fascinating lectures, but the word symposium may be misleading; it needs to be taken very literally as a get-together. There won’t just be speeches going on. It’s basically a festival. There will be music, dancing, theatre. There will also be a number of exhibitions.

The symposium is based on a major theme: “Sharing and Exchange.” How did that come about?

We wanted a theme that has points of contact with the economy, culture and politics. Exchange came up quite early. The sociologist Marcel Mauss once called exchange a “total social phenomenon” because it runs through every aspect of life in society. For a cultural symposium funded by industry – in our case by Merck, Siemens and Volkswagen – it is an ideal subject. Sharing is very contemporary and a perfect thematic addition to exchange. In Weimar, we will look at the economy from a cultural perspective. We’ll ask ourselves, “Why do people swap and share?” The hypothesis is that they don’t usually do it to accumulate material goods. We see economic activity instead as an anthropologically based system of symbols. People share things because they want to communicate. And that is why we as a cultural institute are dealing with things like car sharing.

Is ownership passé?

We can say that ownership no longer serves social status as much. Twenty years ago a big car was still a status symbol. Today, in some circles having one can make a person an outsider. It is sometimes more chic to belong to a barter circle or do car sharing.

What all will be going on in Weimar over these three days?

An enormous amount of things. There will always be five or six events taking place simultaneously. This is intentional. We want everyone to be in a frenzy. We are relying on unpredictability. We want things to happen that would otherwise not happen. This is nothing like a university lecture. We need an exceptional situation that makes people emerge from their shells and communicate with others differently.

How will the participants navigate the events then?

Initially, everyone will have to beat their own path through the programme. We are offering an app to help them. In the end, everything will be brought together in a plenary. We will previously ask individuals to act as correspondents and report on all the events in two sentences. So no results are lost. That could easily happen otherwise, because there will also be a lot of participatory forms of discussion like fishbowls.

Fish bowls?

That’s a discussion where people sit briefly on the podium and then go back into the audience. It eliminates the boundaries between the panel and the audience.

What events are you going to be sure not to miss yourself?

Tomas Sedlacek Tomas Sedlacek | © Perper tui I’m definitely not going to miss the talk by Tomáš Sedlácek. He is a Czech economist and best-selling author and also one of the harshest critics of today’s economics although he is the chief economist of the largest bank in Czech Republic. Jeremy Rifkin will speak on the first evening. I absolutely want to hear his lecture. And at the end there is a Long Night of Sharing and Exchange. It will be a wild party with lots of music, but also with a dozen different artistic interventions.

Will people also be able to actually share and exchange in Weimar?

Yes. We are asking everyone to bring one object from the culture of their homeland. The things will be put on show and can be swapped according to specific rules. For example, I’ll be taking an Upper Bavarian organ pipe. Then there’ll be a garment swapping party. And a Cologne activist will help people temporarily swap genders. For instance, she will make men up so they can feel what it likes to walk down the street as women.

The refugee crisis is again making us particularly aware of how unequal living conditions are in the world. What is does the need to share mean in this context?

This is not a conference on the refugee crisis, but the crisis shows how dramatically important our basic theme is. It asks our society “how much are we willing to share?” We are collaborating with refugees in Weimar. The theme will be present.

What makes sharing and exchange a theme for the Goethe-Institut?

You have to ask it differently: Who else could do it? Only the Goethe-Institut is truly able to deliver a comprehensive international assessment of such a phenomenon. We have discovered very interesting things. In West Africa, for example, there is a trading principle called tontine: around 30 people come together once a month and fund one thing that is considered particularly urgent for a person in their group. This stabilizes communities, which is also culturally relevant. Something similar is already being done in New York. In times of zero interest rates that is potentially a model that could also be interesting for the West.

What does the topic mean for international cultural exchange?

That’s very difficult. We don’t exchange cultures. At the most, we exchange information about cultures. That’s the real secret of the Goethe-Institut and its work: The subject is important, but communication about it is more important. The dialogue we are engaged in, for example about a cultural event abroad with our local partners, often seems more important to me than the event itself. People who speak to each other usually don’t shoot at each other. This constant conversation is probably the real purpose of cultural exchange and it’s an incredible contribution that cannot be overestimated.

Who can take part in the Kultursymposium Weimar? Is it a closed group?

Not at all. We did invite many participants and awarded travel grants, but beyond that any interested person can simply sign up.

This year is just the beginning. In future, a Kultursymposium is going to be held every two years. What can we expect in Weimar in two years?

We’ll think about that later. Right now, we’ll just focus on this year.