“Provide Them With the Tools”

ECF Report - Arts and Culture in Times of Conflict

Yoeri Albrecht

Yoeri Albrecht and Vasyl Cherepanyn

Dessy Gavrilova


The Forum on European Culture was launched in De Balie in Amsterdam. If the idea of Europe is to appeal to people in the future, it must be based on art and culture – for culture is what makes Europe, states the Forum. Visionary artists and thinkers from all over Europe will rethink the perception of Europe in the months to come. On 1, 2, and 3 June 2016, they will be coming together in Amsterdam for the Forum on European Culture called Re:Creating Europe.
Journalist Catriona Black attended the first of a series of these events. She reports back for ECF.

A week after Europe was rocked by terrorist attacks in Paris, and hours before Brussels went into lockdown under threat of a similar assault, three leading cultural activists came together in Amsterdam to debate arts and culture in times of conflict. The debate was organised by De Balie and DutchCulture as a precursor to their forum, Re:Thinking Europe, which will take place during the Dutch EU presidency in 2016, with support from the European Cultural Foundation. The topic, chosen six months in advance, could not have been more timely. “We are heading ever more into what you could call a perfect European crisis”, remarked De Balie’s director, Yoeri Albrecht, who moderated the debate. With the United Kingdom poised to vote on European exit, a Dutch referendum set to challenge Euro-Ukrainian relations on 6 April next year, financial meltdown in Greece and the refugee crisis pushing the Schengen area to breaking point, “it’s like an upcoming tide”.

That growing wave of anxiety and conflict was reflected by the three speakers, Vasyl Cherepanyn, director of the Visual Culture Research Centre in Kiev (and 2015 ECF Princess Margriet Award laureate ); Dessy Gavrilova, founding director of The Red House centre for culture and debate in Sofia; and artist and curator Poka-Yio, co-founder and co-director of the Athens Biennale (also 2015 ECF Princess Margriet Award laureate ).
The speakers have experienced conflict in very different ways. Cherepanyn’s debonair intellectual composure reveals nothing of the daily threat of violence faced by revolutionaries like him in occupied Ukraine. Gavrilova has fought hard to establish a cultural centre in Sofia at a time when art has lost its meaning for ordinary Bulgarians; and Poka-Yio has seen his event budget drop from €1.5 million to zero, with austerity-hit Greeks “on the verge of a civil war”.
What all three share is a belief in the power of art as a force for social and political change. Cherepanyn was actively involved in the Maidan uprising of 2013, which led to the eventual overthrow of Ukraine’s anti-EU president. “Art is not obliged to deal with politics”, he told a packed-out hall, but “politics is borrowing a lot of its instrumentality and a lot of ideas from art”. While demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s were word-based, he argued, today’s movements, such as Maidan and the Arab Spring, channel visual art. The Maidan revolution was, for Cherepanyn, a total work of art – a Gesamtkunstwerk – in which every citizen active on the Square “was an artist in Joseph Beuys’s sense”. The revolution succeeded, in his view, because of its visual power.

Gavrilova described a Europe lurching to the right in fear and confusion, but believes that art can help to make sense of the world again, cutting through the noise and making real connections across borders. She has detected a groundswell of documentary theatre in Moscow, Kiev, Sofia and Athens, and points to its ability to bypass propaganda with the naked truth. Low-budget productions use real-life interviews – such as first-hand accounts of the Maidan uprising – verbatim, encouraging empathy, and bringing “a sense of reality in this over-mediated environment in which we live”.
Poka-Yio, for reasons both financial and political, has abandoned conventional art exhibitions in favour of open-ended social experiments; physical structures which start out empty, such as this year’s biennale, Omonoia, and wait for people to get active inside them: “Art is already becoming social activists and researchers,” he explained. “So let’s provide them with the tools”.
That process of building a solid practical framework in which art can flourish against all odds takes extraordinary stamina. What in comfortable western contexts might sound like bureaucratic shuffling becomes in conflict situations an act of radical heroism. Without those supportive institutions which the rest of us take for granted, and sometimes even come to resent, art and artists are kept powerless. Determined to professionalise the cultural field in Ukraine, and to reduce the dangers for those working in “this barbaric situation without institutions”, Cherepanyn has brought together long-established Soviet organisations and newly emerged radical groups to create the School of Kyiv, “in which everybody is allowed… except the fascists”.

In a frightening week for western Europe, and despite the severity of the problems facing the speakers, the debate was refreshingly upbeat. Here’s what we are building, the speakers were saying, with people, and passion, and art. And here’s how it can empower our communities, reach across borders, and change our futures. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that Cherepanyn ended with a clarion call for a return to international modernism: that abandoned project of building a better world for all, right here, right now.

Written by Catriona Black

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