Constantly Crossing Boundaries The Gift of the Foreign Gaze

Johannes Ebert: “Residency programmes promote openness, dialogue and cultural understanding”
Johannes Ebert: “Residency programmes promote openness, dialogue and cultural understanding” | Photo: Victoria Tomaschko

“Artist residencies are moments for self-realignment.” The Arbeitskreis deutscher internationaler Residenzprogramme (Working Group of German International Residency Programmes) offered insights into the diversity and significance of its programmes at HAU Hebbel am Ufer. 

“Angstland Germany.” When the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom wrote down this insight during his one-and-a-half-year stay in Berlin in 1989 and 1990 as a scholarship holder of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), he not only laid the foundations for his rise to international writing stardom. His Berlijnse notities (Berlin Notes) on politics and everyday life in Germany have since become almost a metaphor for the spin-off effects of cultural exchange: the free space in which a work grows, the enlightening power of a change of perspective, the gift of the foreigner’s gaze for the host country.

Artist support and cultural diplomacy

In Nooteboom’s day, this kind of artist support was comparatively new and rare. The scale that the residency format of local, multi-month artist scholarships has assumed could be seen last night in Berlin’s theatre Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). Around twenty German institutions were there to promote this special form of artist support.

Guests at HAU Hebbel am Ufer Guests at HAU Hebbel am Ufer | Photo: Victoria Tomaschko The public usually associates prestige projects like Villa Massimo in Rome or Villa Aurora in Los Angeles with the vocabulary of artist residences. Fewer people have heard of Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Iwalewa Haus in Bayreuth or the international artists’ house Villa Concordia in Bamberg, Bavaria.

The country with the highest density of artist residencies

At the initiative of the Federal Foreign Office and the Goethe-Institut, these and other institutions joined forces in 2015 to form a working group of German international residency programmes (Arbeitskreis deutscher internationaler Residenzprogramme) in order to better share amongst one another and publicise this form of cultural diplomacy. There are more than forty of them in Germany alone, the country with the highest density of artist residencies. There are residency programmes under German sponsorship in eighty countries worldwide. “Residency programmes promote openness, dialogue and cultural understanding. We need people who can engage in dialogue, deal with cultural differences and are open to new experiences. Especially in times of political turmoil, cultural exchange through residency programmes plays an increasingly important role,” said Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut.
The motto of the evening was Andauernde Grenzüberschreitung or Constantly Crossing Boundaries. It began with Gülhan Kadim, Berfin Zenderlioğlu and Laila Nielsen illustrating the motto by coming unusually close to participants waiting in the lobby in a fast-paced dance performance. During his residency at the Haus der Kunststiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, the Bonn theatre director Frank Heuel had met the young actresses of the Turkish theater group Kumbaracı50. He has been working with them ever since.

Kumbaracı50 at Andauernder Grenzüberschreitung Kumbaracı50 at Andauernder Grenzüberschreitung | Photo: Victoria Tomaschko “The great thing about artist residencies is that you get your own space,” said the Berlin choreographer and future artistic director of the Staatsballett Sasha Waltz in a conversation with the evening’s moderator, the poet Nora Gomringer, recalling her very first residency at the Berlin Künstlerhaus Bethanien. “I think artist residencies are moments for self-realignment.”

The impact the residency has on you is important.

“What the artist produces in this space is not so important, but the impact the residency has on you,” noted the American artist Kevin B Lee, summarising his experiences at Berlin’s Harun Farocki Institute in a video essay he projected on the screen in the large auditorium of the HAU. “I don’t really feel like an ambassador of my country,” confessed the Croatian director and writer Ivana Sajko. “Sure, I can try to rectify false impressions people have about my homeland. But the interesting thing is the people you meet during the residencies. Sharing with them is a great opportunity – to learn, to change. You have to grasp it.”

“It’s not about political art. The political thing is that art is and remains free.”

At a time when culture worldwide is under pressure and the public eye is narrowing its perspective to the national, it was the perfect time to stand up for these “places of freedom,” as Andreas Görgen, the head of the cultural department of the Foreign Office calls them. “It’s not about political art. The political thing is that art is and remains free.”
This freedom is not taken for granted everywhere in the world. For this reason, as Johannes Ebert announced, the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa) and the Goethe-Institut have newly launched the Martin Roth Initiative. With it, they want to offer cultural professionals committed to artistic freedom, democracy and human rights in their homelands temporary protective stays in Germany or in third countries.

Andreas Görgen: “The political thing is that art is and remains free.” Andreas Görgen: “The political thing is that art is and remains free.” | Photo: Victoria Tomaschko

Free space and protective space

American artist Tracey Snelling contributed the appropriate metaphor to the evening for this growing exchange and mutual observation. Her multimedia installation “Kotti” (2018), which she had produced during her stay at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, stood in the lobby of the HAU. The strikingly realistic replica of the distinctive social housing building Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum by Berlin’s notorious Kottbusser Tor looks like a kind of residence, where through the windows of each of the many flats with their typical satellite dishes we may see a video flickering, then see someone drawing, or residents sitting around a table. Oh – this is how Snelling’s work could be interpreted, if only the whole world were an artists’ house!