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Keeping the network going, talking and growing

After almost two years of intensive collaboration, the Freiraum project took stock of its progress to date at an almost festival-like three-day event in Berlin, featuring talks and panel discussions, concerts, an exhibition and film screenings. And the consensus among the participating Goethe-Instituts and their partners is: keep going!

By Annette Walter

The sky over Berlin is grey and cloudy as a cold wind blows down the city streets on this March afternoon. But about twenty-five women gathered in front of Unionpark in Moabit, Berlin, don’t seem to mind. They’re singing "Bella ciao", a song that was sung by the Italian partisans resisting Mussolini’s regime in World War II and that remains an anthem for anti-fascist and socialist movements all over the world. Despite the inclement weather, some passers-by stop to listen and give them a round of applause after the performance.

This impressive promenade with the Slovenian women's choir ŽPZ Kombinat goes to show how singing in public spaces can be part of a lived culture of protest. Their impromptu open-air concert was one of many items on the programme of a three-day gathering in Berlin. At “FREIRAUM in Berlin – On the State of Freedom in Europe: Exhibition, Discussion, Concert, Performance”, the Goethe-Institut’s Freiraum project took stock of how far it has come over the past nearly two years.
Group picture of the participants of the event FREIRAUM Berlin Photo: Anja Weber © Goethe-Institut When the women stop inside the Arminius market hall in Moabit (Berlin-Mitte) and sing "Bandiera rossa", a famous song of the Italian labour movement, a crowd of adults, children and vendors immediately gather round. “Bandiera rossa trionferà,” runs the refrain. “Evviva il comunismo e la libertà.” "The red flag will triumph. Long live communism and freedom!" Next stop is Mathilde-Jakob-Platz, named after a friend and confidante of Rosa Luxemburg’s who was murdered at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. As the women dust off and breathe fresh life into the Slovenian anti-war song "Pesem Upora", history and song form a harmonious alliance. Here, too, people stop and listen: a woman pushing a pram wants to know what the song is about. These songs kindle conversation, and that’s the whole idea, says Maja Žiberna, a journalist and filmmaker for Slovenian public broadcasting, who has made a documentary about the choir for the Freiraum project.

Coffee and round-table review

Žiberna was here the first morning of the three-day get-together for a look back at the progress and results of the 21 Freiraum projects and collaborations between paired towns all over Europe. In the spacious hall of Berlin’s ZK/U Center for Art and Urbanistics, the Freiraum partners sat side by side on benches around five wooden tables with coffee cups in front of them. Most had a long journey behind them, having travelled hundreds of kilometres to Berlin from forty participating European cities, including Tirana, Nicosia, Rome, Dublin, Sofia, Rijeka, Skopje and Carlisle, to name just a few.

Each table discussed one of the five major Freiraum themes:
The Liveable City: Public space and urban planning
Post-Europe: Democracy, nationalism and populism
Defending Diversity: Diversity and integration
Is Freedom a Luxury? Economic inequality
Free Speech: Freedom of speech and expression

Andrea Mecchia of daSud, an anti-Mafia association in Rome, has been working on the question of “the liveable city” since the start of the Freiraum project. Also at his table is his tandem partner, Achilleas Kentonis from the ARTos Foundation, a centre of contemporary arts and sciences in Nicosia. Kentonis talks about two works of street art designed for public spaces in the two cities. He has received plenty of feedback about the murals, which gives him a sense of real accomplishment: "Many elderly people in the neighbourhood as well as local youths took an interest in the murals, which were painted in a refugee camp and a social housing estate.” So the artworks sparked a dialogue between people who might not otherwise have met. What’s more, adds Kentonis, "The Goethe-Institut in Nicosia made it possible for us to contribute technical know-how that would create new, creative jobs for marginalized youths in the field of augmented reality."
Group work at the Freiraum event in Berlin Photo: Anja Weber © Goethe-Institut Sitting next to Kentonis is Luka Rodela of the Drugo More cultural institute in Rijeka, Croatia. Rodela can also look back on an exciting time: his project group – its tandem with Luxembourg even came up with a name for itself: "Luxflux" – have made vacant spaces and buildings usable for the local public, and even tried their hand at guerrilla gardening. Next up is Josephine Michau from the Copenhagen Architecture Festival, who finds their collaboration with Skopje a lucky match for both teams. She adds that they’ve shot several documentary films in Skopje, looking into ways for a city to safeguard free spaces for all its residents. The films are to be screened at the Berlin gathering.

"Freedom in Europe is an uncompleted task"

The official opening of "Freiraum in Berlin" was held that first evening at the ZK/U. "Diversity, tolerance and freedom are Europe’s values today," Goethe-Institut secretary general Johannes Ebert stressed in his keynote address. But these values are now under pressure. Nationalism and a belief in the superiority of one's own country, long thought to be things of the past, have seen a recent resurgence in many countries and are now among the most pressing problems in the EU. Which makes an explicit commitment to civil liberties all the more crucial. "It is up to policymakers and politicians to safeguard the freedom of art and culture across borders," said Andreas Görgen, head of the Culture and Communication Department at the German Foreign Office. But there’s still a lot of work to be done towards that goal, says Cristina Nord, head of the Freiraum project: "Freedom in Europe is an uncompleted task."
Welcome speech by the project manager Christina Nord Photo: Alexandru Andrei © Goethe-Institut But how can we come up with a shared narrative today that will forge strong bonds between the peoples of Europe? This was the question addressed in a panel discussion on "Telling Europe’s story" that first evening. Johannes Ebert pointed out that art can open up perspectives here that are difficult to put across in politics. But he objects to the idea of a European cultural identity or common, dominant culture: "That would build a new fortress. We shouldn't make that mistake." On the contrary, "We must provide a setting in which young people can find their own narrative." This is precisely what Freiraum is all about, Ebert added. He invoked freedom as a central European value.
 
"But if we’re really going to live values like freedom,” asked moderator Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska, who also works for the Goethe-Institut, “don’t we have to do more?"
 
Luka Rodela of Drugo More interjected, "Maybe we should talk less about humanistic concepts like freedom and simply do something instead."
 
"I disagree,” said Ebert. “Discussion is always part of action."
 
"But just talking about crises won't get us anywhere,” Wielga-Skolimowska replied, and closed the discussion on a guardedly hopeful note: "Let's hope for a better story for Europe."

The healing power of group discussion

The "Open Situation Room" then opened up even more room for debate. This participatory format involved dividing the participants up into five groups, each of which discussed one of the five main Freiraum topics at a different table. To introduce the topics and sum up the results at the end of each of three 50-minute discussions, “experts” were assigned to each table, including politicians like German Bundestag vice president Thomas Oppermann (SPD) and former German environment minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD), as well as Spiegel journalist Hasnain Kazim, author Max Czollek, development manager Sardar Aftab Khan and artist/curator Edit Pula.
MdB Barbara Hendricks and Beata Kowalska Photo: Laura Fiorio © Goethe-Institut Kazim, for instance, moderated a discussion of free speech, focusing specifically on "hate speech". He recounted his own experiences of regularly receiving hate mail and hateful comments on the web, a selection of which he published in a book called Post von Karlheinz. "What do you think about Green Party leader Robert Habeck deleting his Twitter account," he asked the seven people in his discussion group.

"If you keep silent and stop tweeting, you’re abetting the haters," said Edit Pula from Tirana. "Maybe one should invite them over for a conversation over a cup of coffee."
 
"I refuse to meet my haters," Kazim replied. He told them about poison-pen emails from hard-core racists and a 20-page letter from a German university professor explaining why Kazim could never become German. But he did agree with Pula on one thing: "If you remain silent online, more and more vicious comments will come to be deemed acceptable." At the end of the session, Kazim said that the discussion – despite or because of the divergent views expressed – was almost like group therapy for him.

Edit Pula agreed on the fundamental merits of discussion: "I’m from a country that has no culture of debate. So how are we to create free speech there?"
 
Not all the round tables reached a consensus: "We have merely developed some visions, but haven’t come up with any solutions," Serb journalist Andrej Ivanji said about the discussion of “Post-Europe” that he’d moderated at his table.

"A fantastic opportunity to meet lots of like-minded people from all over Europe."

At the end of this festival-like Freiraum event in Berlin, many of the participants felt they’d had a very positive experience there. "It was a huge luxury for us to spend these past few days talking about all these things," said Valentina Kastlunger of the Zona K theatre in Milan. In a joint project with her tandem partner Liv Hege Skagestadt from Oslo, Kastlunger has been examining coexistence between European residents and refugees in big European cities.

"These three days were a terrific experience for me," said Daniel McFarlane from Dublin. "I had a fantastic opportunity to meet lots of like-minded people from all over Europe who are doing work that’s comparable to mine. I’ve developed a deep partnership with other people from Europe, with other EU citizens." He has developed a project for Freiraum designed to open up higher education opportunities for secondary school students from low-income areas of Dublin.

His colleague Ronan Smith feels they’ve achieved their goal: "We managed to have a positive influence on the lives of the participating students.” The youngsters themselves, he added, wanted the project to be extended. So his team have drawn up plans to keep the project going in 2019/2020 and are currently looking for funding. This is a good example of Freiraum’s enduring impact even after conclusion of the first phase of the project. And it goes to show that a strong Europe-wide network has formed in the culture industry and in civil society, a network that keeps working, thinking, discussing and producing results, a network that keeps going and growing.
The women's choir Kombinat in Berlin Photo: Anja Weber © Goethe-Institut

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