Trading Places A Polish-German Role Reversal

Trading Places
Trading Places | © Goethe-Institut e.V.

What happens when the director of the Polish Institute in Berlin and the director of the Goethe-Institut in Warsaw swap their workplaces? Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska and Georg Blochmann are doing exactly that and report on the experiences they’ve had so far.

Anyone who doubts the existence of football gods should know better, at least since the draw for this year’s European Championship matches: Germany vs Poland on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Polish-German Treaty of Good Neighbourship! Followed by the 0:0 tie! Is there any better proof that we play in the same league?

Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska, the director of the Polish Institute in Berlin, and Georg Blochmann, director of the Goethe-Institut in Warsaw, have known that for quite awhile, actually, ever since they met nearly ten years ago in Tel Aviv. At the time, she was preparing the Polish-Israeli cultural year, he was director of the Goethe-Institut and they quickly realized that their ideas of dialogical cultural work were practically identical. By coincidence perhaps he then went to Warsaw and she became director of the Polish Institute in Berlin.

Last year, they resolved to take a further step in 2016 for the treaty anniversary. “We’ll simply swap our jobs,” they decided, “and unfurl our cultural dialogue from the other side. What’s important for us in our host countries? Where do we see something significant arising? Can this kind of role reversal work at all? Have we really gotten close as neighbours within Europe?”

Parallel programming in Warsaw and Berlin

Poster in the Berlin subway Poster in the Berlin subway | Photo: Franziska Bauer They simply tried it and under the title of Seitenwechsel – Zamiana miejsc (Trading Places) created an exciting programme over the past few months that will run parallel from 18 to 29 June in Berlin and Warsaw. It consists of coproductions shown in both institutes, collaborations and reflections. Some surprising things came to light, for instance the fact that the emergency staircases of the two institutes are rather similar. A sound installation by Wojtek Blecharz, a rising star among young Polish composers, and the Berlin artist Karl-Heinz Jeron was jointly commissioned. Cellist Dan Weinstein from Tel Aviv is playing the solo in the three-hour performance entitled AXIS. On 18 June, the programme was launched in Warsaw with AXIS and it will close the events in Berlin. The sound installation denotes both institutes as open places for cultural encounters in the two capital cities. It runs seamlessly from the inside to the outside.

Identical tables by the recycling designer Jan Körbes are set up in front of the institutes in Berlin and in Warsaw. There the directors have asked guests to join them for conversations, to eat and drink, to meet. For example, Georg Blochmann in Berlin would like to speak with the urban activist Bogna Świątkowska from the Bęc Zmiana Foundation and explore the question of what makes Warsaw so special, with the singer and instrumentalist Gaba Kulka about the roots of her inspiring blend of jazz, pop and chanson. At the table they will leaf through the portfolio of the well-known photographer Wojtek Wieteska and talk with the young theatre-maker Agnieszka Jakimiak about what unites Poland and Iceland.

Experts at recycled tables

The guests were chosen using a simple principle: They should stand for what, according to the personal views of the two institute directors, makes the cities they live and work in special, the particularities of Berlin and Warsaw in the 21st century. Conversation partners were sought for the protagonists in the other city who could transfer them, help the local audience understand them better.

For example, Tobias Rapp, music journalist for Spiegel, will meet Bartek Chacinski from the magazine Polityka to explore the parallels and differences in the development of popular culture in Poland and in Germany. Murat Suner from 60 pages and Agnieszka Wojcinska from Rekolektyw, journalism collectives, will discuss the changes in journalism and present tangible possible models for the future from their own journalism work. Jan Körbes from, who designed the table everyone is sitting at and is a recycling specialist, will talk with Malgorzata Kuciewicz from the architectural group Centrala about responsible handling of materials.

Cooking and conversation

Conflict Food: With Ayham Majid Agha, Olga Grjasnowa, Agnieszka Walter-Drop, Joachim Bleicker and Dagna Jakubowska Conflict Food: With Ayham Majid Agha, Olga Grjasnowa, Agnieszka Walter-Drop, Joachim Bleicker and Dagna Jakubowska | © Grzegorz Karkoszka Of course, eating, drinking and cooking mustn’t be disregarded at the table. Ayam Majid Agha, a Berliner of Syrian-Armenian-Chechen origin, is playing at Berlin’s Maxim-Gorki-Theater, where he also developed his interactive cooking show Conflict Food. On the opening weekend in Berlin he will use the format to speak with Agnieszka Walter-Drop and Joachim Bleicker, both experts in Polish-German relations, about tension and rapprochement. Dagna Jakubowska, a specialist in the politics of the kitchen, told a short story about the cross-border migration of various weeds in Europe. Everything took place before the captivating background of the Museum Island and Berlin Cathedral and will take place the following weekend in Warsaw in front of the Goethe-Institut.

Georg Blochmann literally took his first steps as the new institute director on an obstacle course through the building of the Polish Institute, a performance designed by Büro Milk in which the sixty-year history of the institute was told through the eyes of the staff and visitors from east and west. It was the perfect introduction to the director swap. Meanwhile, in Warsaw everything is running smoothly. Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska’s first step is to explore the new library of the Goethe-Institut, a project and meeting space presently dedicated to the topic of the “Green City.” The recycled table in front of the door is the logical extension of this space and its function as the meeting place and platform of intercultural understanding.

Poland and Germany, Warsaw and Berlin, Goethe-Institut and Polish Institute: The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

By Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska and Georg Blochmann