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About the project

Teenagers are looking over a town from a rooftop Photo: Ant Rozetsky © unsplash

The aim of the FREIRAUM (Free Space) project is to assess the state of freedom in Europe’s cities. What are the issues that come up when residents, sociologists and creative artists think about the concept of “freedom” in very local terms? What problems are observable in a city? By swapping questions across Europe, 38 Goethe-Instituts and their partners in the arts and civil society are developing creative answers – at a distance and with the aid of perspective – for one another. Here’s an outline of this unique project.

Europe is changing. Populist and nationalist parties are gaining ground in many countries. EU-scepticism, while most glaringly epitomized by the Brexit referendum, is not limited to Great Britain. Portugal, Spain and Greece have to implement drastic austerity policies. And the integration process is running at various speeds, condemning countries like Romania and Bulgaria to continue playing a marginal role for the foreseeable future. In a word, Europe faces challenges at many levels and is looking for answers.

Goethe-Institut: Taking on the challenge and putting new European markers down

The Goethe-Institut sees itself as an institution with a European mandate. We subscribe to the vision of an integrated Europe and actively champion a shared – and diverse – cultural space. We are wholeheartedly committed to values like openness, freedom of movement, justice and the integration of all members of society. The Goethe-Institut is nonetheless well aware that Europe is perceived almost everywhere as being in crisis. Stubbornly clinging to the narrative of a united Europe can easily seem like a denial of reality. Just as Europe must face the challenge of the present-day situation, the Goethe-Institut must put more clear-cut markers down to show its commitment to Europe. We must set our course not by naïve enthusiasm, but by a willingness to engage in dialogue – even if that dialogue is bound to be fraught with tension.
Freedom of the city: Take a stand, bolster partners, reach new target groups

The Goethe-Institut is taking a clear-cut position with Freedom of the City, a large-scale project running from 2017 to the beginning of 2019. The focal concept here is freedom, a core value of European identity ever since the Enlightenment, if not before. And yet the promise of freedom seems to have lost its lustre. In fact Europeans have shown an ambivalence about freedom lately – and not only since illiberal politics took hold in countries like Poland and Hungary. In view of such distressing developments, many Goethe-Institut partners are now anxious, some are even actually at risk. The Goethe-Institut intends to remain a reliable partner to them – and to set an example of teamwork that is visible far and wide.
Through the Freedom of the City project, the Goethe-Institut would like to make a point of reaching out to new target groups: to often-marginalized young people from immigrant families and to people who have a critical or at least sceptical view of present-day Europe, but are still receptive enough for dialogue. Our aim is also to motivate people who are open-minded about Europe, but tend to take it for granted, to speak their minds.
Project phases: identify questions, form tandems, swap questions, develop answers
The idea of networking is central to the Freedom of the City project. The project is to proceed as follows: Each of the participating 42 European Goethe-Instituts worked with several local partners – such as theatres or arts centres, NGOs, universities, associations, initiatives – on developing questions about freedom by the end of September 2017. Each of these questions zeroed in on a specific issue of local relevance. To develop and refine this question, each Institut took the time for an in-depth exploration, e.g. by holding a workshop with partners and outside experts.
The responses to a questionnaire sent out to all the European Goethe-Instituts before the project launch showed that the questions would most likely revolve around three main dialectics:
  1. “Freedom and Identity” – collisions between freedom of speech and freedom of the arts, on the one hand, and religious values, on the other; the many conflicts triggered by the struggle for women’s and LGBTQ rights
  2. “Freedom and the Economy” – how the exercise of basic freedoms is conditioned by the economic situation of individuals as well as nations; how the neoliberal free market often hinders people from developing freely
  3. “Freedom and Europe” – conflicting perceptions of the EU as a guarantee of freedom and independence, on the one hand, and as a yoke that limits autonomy, on the other 

How outside perspectives can help bring the European project back to life

In the second phase, each of the 38 participating Goethe-Instituts worked with its partners to put together by November 2017 a two-minute video illustrating their questions and providing some background. These videos were screened at a get-together in Warsaw on 4/5 December 2017. Besides presenting the questions, the object of the meeting was to draw lots for the so-called “tandems”, in other words to pair off Goethe-Instituts that will work together, in tandem, on the Freedom of the City project, swapping questions and then working with partners to develop an answer to the tandem Institut’s question.
For example, let’s say the Goethe-Instituts in Warsaw and Dublin are paired off by lot. Then Dublin will address Warsaw’s question and work together with its partners to develop a corresponding project or suggested format – and vice versa. It is important to us for local partners and their ideas and projects to take centre-stage, not the Goethe-Instituts themselves. So each tandem is to come up with two productions, which will then be presented in both locations, i.e. in this case both in Warsaw and in Dublin. They will have time to complete those productions till early 2019.
We’re banking on the fact that an outside perspective helps in assessing situations in new and different ways. We’re positive that a creative approach might be found to a perceived problematic situation if it is viewed from a completely different place. And we’re convinced that precisely this kind of exchange represents an opportunity to revitalize the European project, which nowadays far too many Europeans regard as an abstraction.