Interview “Dialogue doesn’t mean winning people over to your opinion at any price”

Milan Zvada is the project manager and Theatre Director at the Záhrada independent arts centre in the Slovakian city of Banská Bystrica. The arts centre has experience in putting together cultural projects even under adverse political conditions: the Banská Bystrica region had a neo-fascist governor for the past five years. As partner to the Goethe-Institut in Bratislava, Zvada bases his involvement in the Freiraum project on what Záhrada is all about: using the arts to fend for minorities, making voices from civil society heard by providing a forum of openness and mutual respect.
 
Interview by Uwe Rada

Photo of Milan Zvada Photo: Adam Burakowski © Goethe-Institut Milan Zvada, you work for the NGO Záhrada in the Slovakian city of Banská Bystrica. What exactly does Záhrada do?
 
Milan Zvada: “Záhrada” means “garden” in Slovak. It’s an independent arts centre founded in 2010 by students, artists and volunteers from Banská Bystrica. We fixed up an old abandoned building and make it a venue for the exhibition and production of contemporary art.
 

What exactly goes on at Záhrada?

We organize over two hundred events a year, including theatrical productions as well as dance and music. We hold workshops and seminars and public discussions about civil society and democracy.
 
Slovakia is one of the countries in which nationalists are increasingly gaining influence. And Banská Bystrica is one of the regions in which nationalists have actually come to power. What does that mean for Záhrada?
 
Slovakia is divided up into eight self-governing regions. Ours is unfortunately notorious for having had a right-wing extremist governor for five years. He was democratically elected. As cultural managers and activists, we reacted with our programming. In addition to our usual artistic activities, we organized happenings, public discussions and exhibitions about our heightened awareness of the threat posed by neo-Nazis. We declared war on hate speech as well as on anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric and the denigration of minorities like Roma, foreigners and the LGBTI community.
 
Have you received support from other organizations?
 
We work closely together with the Center for Community Organizing and its civil society platform “Not in Our Town”. There are prevention and deradicalization programmes there. As a venue, we naturally offer organizational and technical support for campaigns and events. Our aim is to strengthen the voices of marginalized communities and civil society in order to protect shared values and human rights.
 
How homogeneous is the nationalist scene in Slovakia?
 
First off we should be clear on the fact it’s not all that easy to characterize someone as a “nationalist”. The definition also varies from one country or region to the next. “Nationalist” can mean very different things to different people – it’s an emotionally charged category. It’s equally hard to define the people or groups we call “nationalists”. But they do have some things in common, such as their rhetoric and certain views. They’re usually Eurosceptics, xenophobic, politically far right, sometimes even conspiratorial. And yet they’re intelligent, educated. These people may be our neighbours, even family members, they’re teachers or shop assistants. And they, too, come to our events.
 
What do you expect from engaging in dialogue with these people? Should one really talk to right-wingers? This is the Freiraum question asked in Stockholm, too.
 
As an organization, Záhrada has no clearly defined strategy on whether to talk to “nationalists” or not. We are a platform open to encounters of all kinds. And when the dialogue is courteous and the interlocutors treat one another with respect, there’s no reason to demonize such a conversation. It’s important, however, to have the requisite skills and information to conduct such a conversation.
 
And your personal view on this question?
 
I think the object of such a dialogue should not be to persuade people with a different opinion of your opinion at any price. Letting the others speak and listening to what they have to say is enough. You can never tell which way such a conversation will go, so it’s always worth a try. We believe sometimes it takes just a brief comment, even just a word, to trigger a change of mind or a shift in people’s opinions in the long run.
 
What is the current political situation in Banská Bystrica?
 
There was a political change in November 2017. The infamous governor was replaced by the independent democratic candidate Ján Lunter. But that doesn’t mean we’re stopping our activities. There is still propaganda online that’s out to undermine democratic values and spread disinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories. On the other hand, it’s very hard to control public opinion and cyberspace without curtailing basic civil rights and liberties in the process or being accused of censorship.
 
In Warsaw your organization was randomly paired with Athens. You and your Athenian partners got to know each other a little in Warsaw. Were your conversations there productive?
 
Definitely. At the risk of sounding esoteric: it was something like a fateful encounter. We and the Athenian Temporary Academy of the Arts (PAT), which was cofounded by Elpida Karaba in 2013 and which she still directs, have a great desire to get something going together. Juliane Stegner, the Head of Programming Southeastern Europe at the Goethe-Institut Athens, is also a wonderful, cheerful person, and fun to work with, though very serious in her work. In Warsaw we showed each other pictures of our day-to-day work and told each other a lot about it. We’re looking forward to organizing exchange workshops for visual and performance artists, for teachers and locals, as well as lectures for students and the general public.
 
The question from Banská Bystrica is: “How can we influence public debate about borders, freedom and democracy more effectively?” What sort of an answer are you expecting from your partner in Athens?
 
This is not exactly an easy question. In any case, we’re hoping for inspiration and greater knowledge about ourselves, from which to benefit in our work. Also, a greater sensibility for respect and tolerance when we discuss certain subjects. But on a very pragmatic level, our objective is to develop new formats to get the public involved in our arts centre, among other things: How do engage citizens in public debate outside the institutions? How can we familiarize them with the contradictions and risks of the political, ideological and media spin on reality? Our partners have plenty of experience in dealing with the difference between the public and private spheres, with art outside the institutions and with pedagogical practice. We’d like to build on that.
 
What does the timetable for collaboration between Banská Bystrica and Athens look like?

 
We’re planning a one-week trip to Athens in May. It’s important to us to get to know the urban context there to prepare for our talks in Slovakia in the autumn. Naturally, other activities like exhibitions and workshops will follow, but that depends on the enthusiasm of our prospective participants.