About the Project Project opening in Brussels
The large-scale FREIRAUM (“Free Space”) project seeks to draw Europe into a conversation with itself about itself. As a first step to this end, 42 Goethe-Instituts are each working with partners in culture and the arts and in civil society to develop a question. A question that concerns their location and takes up a problem related to freedom there. Brussels has already undertaken its search for a question, involving a workshop and a public gathering, which became a polyphonic participatory process. A visit to Brussels.
By Uwe Rada
Freedom is a key concept for Cristina Nord, director of cultural programming for Southwest Europe at the Goethe-Institut in Brussels. And freedom is the focus of a large-scale project involving 42 Goethe-Instituts all over Europe, which got underway in the autumn of 2017, and runs up to 2019: FREIRAUM (“Free Space”) is a European project in which the participating Instituts are working together not only with partners in their city or region, with NGOs, arts centres and civil society initiatives. They have also formed cross-border teams, comprising two Goethe-Instituts working in tandem with their respective partners as a single project group. Each Institut will take up a question about problems of urgent importance to their tandem partner relating to what is naturally a very global concept: “freedom”. So Naples might end up grappling with the problem of mounting racism in Bratislava, for example, whilst Bratislava delves into the Neapolitan problem of illegal buildings. “Curiosity and empathy are important if we want to get back into a deeper dialogue with one another in Europe,” says Cristina Nord, who is helming the Goethe-Instituts’ FREIRAUM project.
Brussels: A city draws a picture of itself
But what are the most pressing problems of a city, region or country in relation to freedom, free movement, or a liberal conception of society? To find that out for Belgium and its capital, the Brussels Goethe-Institut held a workshop on 20 September 2017 in the Beursschouwburg, a multidisciplinary arts centre near the stock exchange in the heart of the old town. In dry, sunny autumn weather (by Brussels standards) and a highly concentrated working atmosphere, creative artists and cultural scientists, social workers and experts on the various districts of Brussels began by painting a multi-faceted portrait of a city that has to shoulder several functions: capital of the European Union, capital of trilingual Belgium and integration machine for immigrants from non-EU countries. “Brussels,” one of the conferees said right at the start, “lies in the field of tension between the Europa-City of EU officials, on the one hand, and immigrant districts like Molenbeek, on the other.”
Brussels and Europe: this relationship has now even become the stuff of literature. Austrian writer Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt (“The Capital”), a novel about Brussels, won the German Book Prize in 2017. He paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of the machinery of EU bureaucracy in Brussels in which every proposed reform is at some point ruthlessly blunted to take off its teeth. And yet the actors in this machinery are people like you and I. The bureaucrats’ Brussels – this is Menasse’s message – is more human than its reputation would suggest.
From citizens to users of the city: Brussels identity hangs in the balance
Sociologist and geographer Eric Corijn of Brussels’ Vrije Universiteit, on the other hand, takes a look at the immigrant city of Brussels. He feels Brussels’ diversity is a core characteristic of the city. “Brussels is the second-most diverse city on earth, after Dubai and ahead of Toronto,” Corijn said at the Beursschouwburg workshop. What is more, both groups of Brussels denizens who identify along national lines – the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons – are in the minority vis-à-vis non-Belgian residents, other EU nationals and immigrants from the rest of the world.
Unlike Berlin or Paris, for example, where learning German or French, respectively, is the key to social and economic participation, immigrants in Brussels have to decide between French and Dutch – or ideally learn both languages. EU officials, on the other hand, don’t even have to do that, says Corijn: they converse in their native tongue or in English. So Brussels is even more the Babylon of Europe than Berlin or Paris, “a city of minorities without a reference group”, as he puts it. And yet it is this very diversity that makes things interesting for the sociologist: “The Brussels identity is one of ambivalence. Most residents live here not as citizens, but as users of the city.”
But diversity causes problems, too. It seems to have upset the city’s social, ethnic and cultural equilibrium in many parks and public squares, where, as some deplored at Beursschouwburg, socially marginalized groups have taken over. Others, however, pointed out that the groups appropriating these urban spaces are, for the most part, victims of racism. We are familiar with similar conflicts and differences of opinion over places like Görlitzer Park in Berlin and other multi-use public spaces in large Western European cities. But how should we handle them? And what are we to expect when issues like these are brought up not by people in Brussels itself, but, say, by an art centre in Bratislava, the Slovak capital? “Do we in Europe have the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes in order to solve problems together?” asks Cristina Nord. The FREIRAUM project aims to create a platform to address this question, too.
Loud counterpoint: Can culture keep us from relapsing into nationalism?
What do we mean by freedom? Does our personal freedom end where it encroaches on the freedoms of others? Doesn’t freedom for some people in Europe mean recovering national sovereignty? And how fair does a society have to be in order for everyone to enjoy the promise of the French Revolution: freedom, equality, humanity?
Since this autumn, a number of Goethe-Instituts all over Europe have held workshops like the one in Brussels to discuss questions like these. For without civil rights and liberties, and without liberation movements like those of 1989 that shook up Central and Eastern European countries, Europe as we know it today would have been inconceivable. Now, however, it is at risk of being stifled by the rise of nationalism, right-wing populism and a yearning for authoritarian politics.
So the question many are asking now is how to set a loud counterpoint against the imaginary freedom of national or regional autonomy: could a new liberation movement be started to keep Europe from backsliding into a volatile welter of national self-interests? And if so, what form might it take? What role could art and culture play in creating such a movement?
Eighty-fold freedom: Of tandems and cultural translation
The 42 Goethe-Instituts involved in the FREIRAUM project, together with their local partners, have so far developed some very different questions. Cracow, for instance, has zeroed in on the role of women in a profoundly Catholic society. Many Neapolitans, on the other hand, exercise their freedom by illegally adding storeys to existing buildings to create extra housing space. Good or bad? In Great Britain, the Goethe-Instituts of London and Glasgow are planning to enlist the help of young people to find out why the overwhelming majority in the town of Carlisle voted for Brexit.
The questions will be presented at a “Meeting of the 80” in Warsaw in early December. The participating Goethe-Instituts will then be paired off by lot into 20 so-called “tandems”. Each Institut will subsequently research and develop its paired counterpart’s question in the form of an artistic project and, in the final phase, present its results to each other. The presentation will involve not only conventional translation, moving between the various languages that go to make up Europe’s linguistic diversity, but also cultural translation.
Cyclists’ freedom of movement:
So, if we stick to Brussels for the time being, what can the Belgian capital expect from this sort of transfer of questions and cultures? If Brussels were to be paired by lot with, say, Bratislava, to what question does Brussels want an answer from Slovakia? The very day after the workshop in September, the Goethe-Institut Brussels and the Beursschouwburg invited the people of Brussels to a public assembly to vote on the question to which their city wants a European answer. The ensuing exchange proved yet another illustrative instance of how intertwined one’s own freedom is with the freedom of others – and how readily the question of the prevailing balance of power also comes up in this connection.
One woman at the meeting said that, when cycling in Brussels, she feels hampered in her freedom of movement by inconsiderate motorists. A remark which immediately prompted comments by several other attendees – and which goes to show that freedom need not always be considered in terms of big, often quite abstract concepts. What is freedom? Whose freedom is at stake? And who makes the rules? This is often evident in the way people deal with one another in everyday life as well.
Working with a bad image: What does Europe make of Brussels?
Another question raised at the meeting was how to maintain access to public spaces for various groups while establishing new rules of respectful social interaction. Attendees added that these issues are not unique to Brussels. “We denizens of Brussels have a bad image in Europe,” sociologist Eric Corijn pointed out. “People associate us with bureaucracy and the loss of national sovereignty.”
Corijn’s appeal was clear: not only novelists, but also Brussels’ randomly paired teammate should focus on Brussels as the capital of Europe. The question Brussels is now asking is this: “Europe has implanted itself on Brussels as an alien body. How can we integrate the alien and truly make Brussels the capital of Europe? What should such a Brussels look like?” This was one of 38 questions the Goethe-Instituts and their partners will be grappling with till 2019. The answers and proposed solutions will show whether cultural means can succeed in drawing Europe into a badly-needed conversation with itself about itself.
Gallery of the Project opening in Brussels