Solidarity to overcome distance – Tårnby (DK), Skopje (MK) and the summit
Skopje was not on my inner landscape before 2017 when I first talked on Skype with Biljana Tanurovska. I was preparing the „European Summit – Art, Politics and the Institution“ that Zeitraumexit and Jan Philip Possmann had invited me to organize in September 2017.
In this Skype meeting, Biljana told me about the Nomad Dance Academy.: A dance education that her institution Lokomotiva in Kino Kultura in Skopje is running together with Station for Dance in Belgrade, x, x and x. I was impressed by the way Nomad Dance Academy applies ethical principles to artistic collaboration and how they offer alternatives to practice artistic work in times of severe financial and political pressure. How can artistic practice survive in a meaningful way when economically being at the edge of existence?
I am facing this question in an environment which differs in many ways from the conditions in Skopje, Belgrade and other places from Ex-Yugoslavia: Denmark. Denmark is a rich country with a pretty well functioning social security system. Still, cultural and educational institutions have been affected by serious budget cuts, been initiated by the right wing government that ruled the country from 2015-2019.
In Denmark, performing art institutions like theaters are rarely seen or described as public spaces. Theaters in Denmark are traditionally supposed to do (only) entertainment. There are some rare exceptions.The actual debates which happen for example in Germany about how to transform city theaters into real public spaces is rarely happening in Denmark. Independent art institutions that create an experimental space of public sphere are rare as well. This is, what I am trying In the Copenhagen suburb called Tårnby. I live there with my family. Tårnby as a municipality is a pretty well-financed and quiet place. The urban architecture tells that Tårnby is built to enable people a good private life. Where are the public meetings happening? The Copenhagen Airport lies within the municipality and finances a big part of the municipal budget. It creates employment for more than half of the working inhabitants. The cultural budget goes mainly into sports (swimming pools) or cultural education (like nature, music school). The politicians I talked to do in general not see their municipality as a place for art – what should that be? Art is supposed to be happening in close Copenhagen. An artistic experimentation that plays with subjects of public interest is of no presence.
In Tårnby, the library is the most prominent public place. It provides books, media, a cafeteria and events like lectures or social happenings like the „Kulturbazar“, where socially engaged institutions exhibit themselves and create sociality. It is an important and well-accepted place for many people of various backgrounds. It is a rationally easy understandable place for culture. A safe place. And therefore, as I would claim, not providing the experimental aspect of renegotiating the society, of imagination beyond the status quo. Unlike Skopje, Tårnby has been ruled by Social Democrats since 100 (hundred) years and it rests in that peace.
How stupid can one be to try to establish another mode of cultural practice in such a desert of stillness? Who asked for it? Learning much from the summit 2017, where different models of cultural spaces have been presented, like Mama Zagreb, Virsodepseio Athens, Nomad Dance Academy, Aurora Budapest, Heart boven Hard Belgium, I am trying to create spaces of trust, of involvement of artists and other citizens. There, I try to renegotiate parameters of our society, of meaning, of the relation between the private and the public. This led to two festivals 2017 and 2018: Small try outs. The artists involved produced performances and also organized the event. They related to local people and their own artistic community. In its best moments, it collected people in one space that else never would meet in Tårnby.
No one asked me to start this work, and I learned for myself that it is me that needs to take the responsibility for it: I do it, because I want to do it. It is important for myself, in order to feel alive as a citizen in this situation, and I see a necessity in this society for such a place, because I think, social silence can be dangerous.
In 2019 we had to leave our first place located in an old supermarket building. It was supposed to be torn down. This still has not happened and the spaces we used are empty now. Right now, February 2020, we inhabit a former bank for three months, and from April to June I will proceed the work in a local housing area. Then, everything is open again. In the moment, there is no planning security, and only informal acknowledgment. I think, if we stubbornly proceed, that might change at some point, but it is unsure. How long can you work against a status quo which operates against your interest?
In a talk with Biljana she said, it would be wrong to call such a structure that I try to provide an institution. It could rather be seen as a practice that creates temporary shelters for the public sphere to happen and for artistic practice to meet the privatized urban area and social players that otherwise would stay in their own bubble.
Skopje is of another dynamic: The right wing government that had ruled the country 2010-2016 did not silence the urban public space, on the contrary: It conquered it. As an introduction into Skopje at our new edition of the summit in December 2019 , we got a tourist tour („Kitsch tour“) through the center of the city. The core of the city has been severely attacked. By aggressively rebuilding facades of houses in an absurd classicism without sincere historic references, by building and partially inventing historic figures to be portrayed in oversized and mostly ugly monuments – all of it built enormously fast and therefore in a very bad quality. In short: by creating a storm of fake buildings and sites – this government has shown its quality to be able to effectively change the core of a city as a public place. A place where people have been able to gather to discuss, to demonstrate, to show their role as citizens. The government destroyed parks (trees, free space) by placing ahistoric, kitschy monuments or buildings which aggressively attack every sense of aesthetics. They also attacked citizens physically or psychologically that opposed this obscene storm. We learned also in the kitsch tour, that the government not only changed the face of the city but that this, in sum, was a very effective way of money laundering: About 80% of the very high salaries for the involved architects, „artists“ etc. went back onto the banc accounts of the ruling party which, by this, became richer than the CDU in Germany. Now, the actual government needs money for the tearing off of the monuments instead of using it for social security or other important public investments.
It speaks for itself that an experimental artistic space like Kino Kultura in Skopje is much more existentially threatened in this environment that my „shelter“ that I practice in Tårnby. The public funds are even less accessible, the society is traumatized by the recent history of its country, people with higher education tend to leave the country. Artwork is vulnerable to the physical existence of its protagonists. In Tårnby, artwork is vulnerable as a societal practice.
What links us, is a common interest to understand the mechanisms which enable or destroy public sphere. We can find that many mechanisms which can be experienced in Skopje „in the face“ are also at work in a well stuffed „democracy“ in Scandinavia. The paradise is not existing here or there. Democratic procedures, the embracing of the foreigner, of disturbance, of thoughts with transformative potential are under attack or at least at stake in both societies and many more. This is the fabric that can generate solidarity between the different regions, citizens, artists: We are not alone. The same economical and political games shake our societies and the more we exchange, find strategies, share analysis, the more we work into an opposing direction, can resist, or produce positive change. This is for me the essence of the summit, as it happened 2017 in Mannheim, and now, 2019 in Skopje. It is a semi-informal exchange, an open dialogue, and a generous effort from the organizing institution. A small seed with a future.
Andreas Liebmann is a swiss performance artist based in Copenhagen. 2001 he co-founded the performance group GASTSTUBE°. GASTSTUBE° developed experimental performances and created theater pieces, durational performances, installations, bus tours, walks and other formats in German-speaking countries and France. Since the group split up 2007, Liebmann has been developing his own formats and working methods as a stage director, performer and author. 2016 he initiated the evening school import in Zurich – a school program where refugees and migrants are the teachers. 2017 he founded the Tårnby Torv Festival which is an attempt do anchor experimental performance practices in regular neighbourhoods. It deals with questions of public space, democratic participation, public sphere and heterotopia in order to end the time of no alternatives. The festival is struggeling with the problem of getting space. As municipal support is not easy to get, it works with the principle of direct action: Behave as if the world you wish to exist had already appeared. 2019, the performance group GASTSTUBE° reunites, developing new performances with a focus on hospitality. Andreas has been teaching at the Universities of the arts Zurich, Berlin and Leipzig and since 2015, he is teacher for ideabased and conceptual direction at the DDSKS in Copenhagen.