In the months preceding the Forum on European Culture, we travel to important European cities to start exploring the question: What is the value of arts and culture for Europe? Our research trajectory started last October in Kiev at the Kyiv Art Biennale 2015.
Memorial photographs of Ukrainian citizens that died during the demonstrations in Kiev or in the war in Eastern Ukraine occupy Kiev’s central square, the heart of the Maidan protests that started in November 2013. Ukrainian national flags visually dominate the city. Here in Kiev, where the Maidan protests and the violent conflict in Eastern Ukraine is tangible in the streets, we discussed one of the most important issues of today’s Europe: Europe’s borders. What can we learn about European identity and culture in Ukraine, one of Europe’s so-called “border” areas, but ultimately central in in the continuing process of defining Europe, both in the past and in the present?
In Kiev critical discussions on the position of Ukraine within Europe are not held in the city’s state theatre or national museum. Here, you have to be more creative to organize such a precarious but very urgent debate. The School of Kyiv, an art biennale that questions the critical position of Ukraine between Western Europe and Russia through art, creatively transformed 17 locations in Kiev into open and thought-provoking art spaces. In the House of Clothes, a former department store turned into a two-floor exhibition, Dutch and Ukrainian artists and thinkers meet. Amid various political artworks – ranging from a painting that visualizes the overthrowing of a Lenin monument by anti-Russian demonstrators in 2014 to an installation reflecting on the usage of national symbols in today’s Ukraine – Mathieu Segers, Vasyl Cherepanyn, Rogier Klomp, Nikita Kadan, and Yoeri Albrecht started a conversation on Europe’s frontiers.
Mathieu Segers, a Dutch professor of International Relations and European Integration, started off with a column in which he called upon European citizens to again start questioning and formulating European identity. Because how can we define Europe’s borders without knowing what Europe is in the first place?
How can we define Europe’s borders without knowing what Europe is?
If we look at the history of European integration we can state that Europe suffers from an identity crisis. While the current burning challenges of Europe such as the refugee crisis ask us to formulate Europeanness, Europe seems unable to do so. Therefore we urgently need imagination, the ideas of creative thinkers and artists, to rethink Europe.
But can we really speak of one Europe?, asked Vasyl Cherepanyn, one of the organizers of the Kyiv Biennale who played an active role during the Maidan protests at Kiev’s central square. He argued how your position within Europe – is your country positioned inside or outside the European integration process? – determines your definition of the European idea. If we, for example, look at Ukraine, he explains, we feel that Europe is still based on the principle of the Berlin Wall. Even after the fall of the wall, we still experience the divide between East and West. We can even say the wall has been moved to the external borders of Europe if we think of today’s Fortress Europe.
That Mathieu and Vasyl are part of the same European project, but simultaneously live in different parts of Europe became apparent when they both were asked by Yoeri Albrecht (artistic director of De Balie) to start formulating an idea of Europe.
It’s not totalitarian, it’s not a blueprint, but it’s having the self-confidence, time, and freedom to doubt. That is the essence of Europe
“It’s not totalitarian, it’s not a blueprint, but it’s having the self-confidence, time, and freedom to doubt. That is the essence of Europe,” answered Mathieu theoretically. Vasyl’s answer made clear that a great part of Europe still has to fight for this free space for doubt and self-questioning. He personally observed the idea of European most clearly during the demonstrations on Maidan. There, the European subjects practically achieved something very important; a revolutionary spirit materialized amid the protesters. “Maidan proved that the impossible is possible,” he passionately states, “and that is a very European idea to me.”
Both agreed on the important role of artists and creative thought since imagination is the only weapon of a free and open society. But is it fair to impose such a problematic task upon artists?
Yes, said the two participating artists, the Ukrainian visual artist Nikita Kadan, and the Dutch illustrator Rogier Klomp, as long if people don’t completely give away their responsibility. They both felt the importance to rethink Europe through their artistic work, although in completely different ways. Actively involved in the Kyiv Biennale, Nikita Kadan hopes his conceptual visual art can be a first step towards a zone of agreement and mutual understanding. Something that is much needed if you live in Ukraine, where you never feel part of a world, but always in-between different worlds. Rogier Klomp, as a Dutch European, is rather interested to hear the different ideas and sentiments of ordinary European citizens. As part of a project called Propaganda by the People he challenges people from all over Europe to think about their European identity by means of poster workshops in European cities.
The next day, if we follow Rogier’s poster workshop in the streets of Kiev and see the strong reactions on the project (negative as well as positive), we again experience the urgency of the European idea for the Ukrainian people. While in the Netherlands discussions on Europe sometimes can feel abstract and far away, in Ukraine issues as Europe’s borders and European integration are a bitter reality. Here, defining Europe is no abstract theory; rethinking Europe means creating a future for Ukraine.
Merlijn Geurts is project officer of the Forum on European Culture "Re:Creating Europe" and editor at De Balie in Amsterdam.