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Goethe Warsaw Brussels

By Uwe Rada

Keeping to Ourselves

Katarzyna Szymielewicz is convinced of the merits of a playful approach to the question. "How can I leave my filter bubble and comfort zone and overcome my fear of different mindsets?” asks the co-founder and director of Panoptykon, a Warsaw NGO that advocates against Internet surveillance and for the individual’s right to data privacy. Szymielewicz and her employees celebrated when the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation took effect in May 2018. They hope it will make life a little harder for Google and Facebook – and at least slightly curtail the power of the algorithms that determine who we communicate with and who gets filtered out.

A Warsaw NGO invited to take part in the Goethe-Institut's Freiraum project could certainly have taken on a bigger issue than filter bubbles. The dismantling of democracy in Poland, for example, by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), the ruling national-conservative right-wing populists, their propaganda in the state-owned media and their assault on the independence of the courts. But Katarzyna Szymielewicz opted instead for an issue that affects not only Poland, but everyone in Europe. How do we want to communicate and with whom? Who makes the rules of communication? Are we trapped in a bubble? Or is it a comfort zone for us because everything outside it can be strange, frightening, even menacing? So the question Szymielewicz and Panoptykon are asking is this: "If we were free to choose between full access to information and life in a filter bubble, which would we pick?”
A person walks Andrew Gook © unsplash In this case, freedom means leaving familiar ground for unknown territory. Warsaw is glaring example of just how hard that is for many. The Polish capital leads the count in Europe with around five hundred gated communities. When the first of these isolated housing estates, fenced-in or walled-in and guarded by surveillance cameras, were built in the late 1990s, security was still a big issue. Over time, however, gated communities have caught on as a cultural phenomenon, says urban sociologist Bohdan Jałowiecki: "We dream of a city inhabited by our kind."

And it’s driving the fragmentation of Warsaw into homogeneous realms, observes Wojciech Klicki, who works with Kataryzna Szymielewicz at Panoptykon. Despite criticism of these residential enclaves, there’s no end in sight. "Poles are increasingly thinking of themselves and not of society," says Klicki. "The my-home-is-my-castle mindset still prevails." And yet life on a housing estate guarded by fences and CCTV cameras doesn’t guarantee more security, Katarzyna Szymielewicz points out. "Research shows that people living in gated communities actually feel even more afraid and unsafe than others." She calls it the "besieged fortress syndrome".

And yet the desire to keep to ourselves is changing our lives and society. So in a sense, Facebook and Google are merely doing what users want. No static, no friction, no unpleasant encounters on the Net or, for that matter, on neighbourhood streets.

You play yourself, then an actor plays you

The Goethe Institute in Warsaw would also be in a gated community if it had a fence around it. Situated in an elongated courtyard inside a complex smack in the centre of the Polish capital, it’s accessible from Chmielna Street via several other courtyards. On balmy evenings, drunkards occasionally wander into the courtyard, roaring and revelling, then they usually wander out again after a few minutes. Tom Bonte, director of the Beursschouwburg Theatre in Brussels, got an earful of those noisy drunks one night too. Bonte had come to Warsaw in May with his dramaturge, Dries Douibi, to look into the possibilities for a joint project with Katarzyna Szymielewicz. It was clear from their first meeting in Brussels that they wanted to team up and divide up the work. So Brussels has decided not to pursue its own question (What would a real capital of Europe look like?). Instead, the Beursschouwburg Theatre is going to address Panoptykon’s question on stage, both in Brussels and Warsaw.

During a brainstorming session in Warsaw, they talked about a playful approach, staging the whole thing either as an urban game of some sort or as a play. Why not play themselves in front of an audience? A bank manager would play a bank manager, a theatre director a director, a politician a politician. And then… it would be the actors' turn to play a bank manager, theatre-maker, politician. Do they play the parts the same way? Hey, is that us they're playing? How do we see ourselves, how do others see us? Through play-acting, we’re suddenly confronted, playfully, with an outside perspective on ourselves. So this is one way to leave your bubble.
Gebäudestruktur Anders Jilden © unsplash "It’s important to develop a game that arouses emotions," insists Katarzyna Szymielewicz. “A game that gives us an opportunity to leave our comfort zone and overcome our fear of confronting a very different mindset."

But what if the theatre closes down?

The Teatr Powszechny is not exactly a comfort zone, whether for managing director Paweł Łysak or for the PiS, the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party. "When we staged Klątwa, a play by Croatian director Oliver Frljić," says Łysak, "there were angry protests in front of the theatre." Klątwa means “curse”. This play, in which Frljić addresses the issue of child abuse in the Catholic Church, includes some drastic and provocative scenes.

The uproar has since subsided. But if the PiS were to win the Warsaw elections in autumn and install a PiS mayor, Łysak’s theatre would be in serious jeopardy. "We’re a municipal theatre," he explains. So a right-wing city government could simply stop funding what may well be the most progressive theatre in the Polish capital.
Katarzyna Szymielewicz, Tom Bonte and Dries Douibi, along with Goethe-Institut colleagues from Brussels and Warsaw, took the tram across the Vistula River to view this prospective venue for a performance on the subject of filter bubbles. Paweł Łysak and his deputy Paweł Sztarbowski welcomed the delegation over coffee in the Teatr Powszechny forecourt. Łysak had something to say about the subject of Freiraum and freedom: "We see that the right are increasingly setting the agenda. If we want to engage them in dialogue, then only from a position of strength."

Everyone seemed sure that the Teatr Powszechny would be a good place for the performance. Then again, shouldn't they be looking for a less partisan theatre that isn't so clearly connected to the opposition in Poland? One that breaks out of its bubble? The filter bubbles which Szymielewicz’s foundation is trying to pop holes in are one thing. But if you actually choose to withdraw into your own comfort zone, you can’t blame Google and its algorithm anymore. So the Warsaw question is also about getting people to ask themselves whether they shouldn’t risk crossing the Great Divide more often and engaging in a conversation with people of different persuasions. This is why Szymielewicz, Bonte and the colleagues from Goethe-Institut Warsaw and Brussels decided to bring in two additional theatres: a small fringe theatre called Komuna Warszawa and the Teatr Studio inside Warsaw’s highrise exhibition centre, the Palace of Culture and Science.
Blick aus einem Innenhof in Richtung Himmel Caitlin Oriel © unsplash

Plan A and Plan B

The planning of this project between the Belgian and Polish capitals also showed how hard it is to work with folks who don’t tick the way we do. At the Goethe Institute it was soon apparent that dialogue can be quite a challenge even within the Freiraum project itself. "Do we really need an artistic partner putting our issue on the stage?" Panoptykon director Katarzyna Szymielewicz asked out of the blue. "After all, we're not doing art, we're doing a social experiment." Tom Bonte of the Beursschouwburg Theatre, however, insisted on trying it with an artistic stage production.

This production is Plan A, which Warsaw and Brussels have finally signed off on. Panoptykon is to send a “briefing” to Brussels. Based on this document, Tom Bonte is going to look for one or more artists to bring the issues of "comfort zone and fear" and "breaking out of filter bubbles" to the stage. Says Bonte, "I’m hoping the end result will be more doubt."
If all that doesn’t work out, Plan B kicks in. Freiraum project manager Cristina Nord has come up with this alternative. "Then the artistic project will take the format of a ‘big conversation’, an experimental discussion in which the audience take part. So it won’t be artists answering the question of whether and under what circumstances we’re able and willing to shed our second skin, but everyone there.”

At any rate, Cristina Nord is convinced that the issue of filter bubbles has legs, so to speak. "I'm aware of most of the bubbles I move in. But there are bound to be some I don't know about." One of them was the restaurant where the workshop participants met for dinner in the evening. It’s called "Między nami": i.e. entre nous, keeping to ourselves.