Amid war and conflict around the world, the role of art and culture in rebuilding societies is often forgotten, as is its function in preventing conflict, Goethe-Institut General Secretary Johannes Ebert tells DW.
Deutsche Welle: What role does culture play in peacemaking and in development and how does the work of Goethe Institut fit into that picture?
Johannes Ebert: We have about 159 institutes in 98 countries worldwide and our basic task is to promote German language, to work on cultural exchange and to inform people about Germany. Primarily, this does not have much to do with crises and the like, but culture plays a very big role in societies because it offers an area of free exchange, a place where creativity is possible, where people come together and find their own means to express their ideas about the future of a society. All of these qualities of culture can play a very big role when you talk about cultural exchange - also for the process of the stability of a society, of dealing with the important topics of a society and also in the end, of, maybe not peacemaking per se, but facilitating reconciliation among groups within the society, bringing people together in a society.
So basically, exposure to and the promotion of exposure to cultures is a catalyzer to understanding as well?
Well this is very important for us. I think the Goethe-Institut, compared to other cultural institutes, started quite early with this: we have a dialogical approach, meaning that we try to see that we develop projects in cooperation with partners; instead of showcasing and showing our culture, we try to develop common projects which start a process of discussing values, of getting to know each other on a much deeper level than when you just put on a show, concert or an exhibition. Our basic idea is that in today's quite difficult world with a lot of crises coming up all the time, with a lot of quick changes happening, I think two things are important: On one hand, it is important that you have a stable exchange on this dialogical level. On the other hand, it's very important to react very fast to certain challenges like in Ukraine, like in the Middle East and so on.
When reacting to crises, the perspective from culture is certainly a lot different than a political approach would be. How does work from the cultural side compare to political reactions in dealing with crises and discussing values?
I think political questions are very much linked to immediate political challenges - you have a problem and you have to solve it. I think culture works on a long-term basis. It works on a more sustainable basis, it goes deeper and you can also discuss questions which maybe in short-term politics you cannot discuss. You can discuss things without pointing fingers at other people. You can lead quite open discussions in the way cultural dialogue works.
Culture normally offers a space for free expression. For example, we just opened an exhibition in Slovakia by artists dealing with refugees. This is a very hot political topic in Slovakia but showing an exhibition involving artists who reflect being a refugee or who reflect their actual situation can give a different outlook on the problem than politics can. It can touch emotions, it can touch on a person's own experiences in a different way, which makes people perhaps more aware of the problem in a deeper or different way than politics can.
What about in crisis regions? Do culture and the promotion of culture have the same effect in crisis regions?
I think basically, there is a similar effect. The Goethe-Institut is not active in war zones, but after a military crisis, I think culture is very important because it can bring people together; culture is very often closely linked to civil society. You see it in the Middle East and in other areas, also in the Ukraine, that civil society plays a very big role in the cultural field. And by doing cultural projects with civil society groups, you can support them, enable them, to deepen their influence on society. Another thing is that with cultural projects, of course which is very important in crisis and post-crisis areas, is you can address the past. We know from our own German history that reflection about the past is very important to create a sane and stable society. I have been working in many countries – in Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East - where this topic is often excluded. These are places where it is not common to talk about personal conflicts within society, about the guilt. It's more common to neglect these issues and just move on. And I think cultural projects can deal with these very delicate subjects of a shared but cruel and difficult past. And I think this kind of reconciliation is very important for the future of a society after a crisis.
So it has a therapeutic value?
Yes it does, but I always tend to avoid instrumentalizing culture for one cause. Culture is not a therapy. It offers a free space where different experiences can be touched upon. We had a big conference in South Africa a few years ago called "Überwunden" which in German has two meanings ["overcome" and "on the topic of wounds"] which talked about the role of art in crisis and in talking about the past. And of course there was a certain therapeutic effect, but there is a much broader and much more complex effect that it has on society.
What is Goethe-Institut doing to help Syrian refugees?
Well there are a few things. We have a fund to support Syrian artists who fled, for example to Lebanon. They can propose art projects that they are working on with artists from the local communities. This enables them to be able to continue working so that when Syria is rebuilt, they can continue with their important work as artists in Syria.
Another project we have is offering language courses to acknowledged refugees waiting to come to Germany in Turkey, for example. We also have also started a new project this year with so-called library busses, or information centers. These are small, transportable information centers that we would like to open up in refugee camps or in other places, which all contribute the aim of giving people a perspective in education and culture.
The other thing we are doing is art projects with children in the neighboring countries of Syria. We are focusing on these areas to give a certain perspective to children who are now either in foreign cities or in refugee camps. We started with reading projects, then we introduced theater projects and now we are doing football, which is culture in a very broad sense. But the aim is to give the children a perspective to wake up their creativity. And one of the aspects is really to do with overcoming the trauma of being a refugee, of overcoming the experiences that they had when they had to flee their countries.
And also one factor is that many of the children living in refugee camps don't have access to education …
Exactly! We say there has to be education. And I have been to Amman where there is a project and children come from two hours away to take part in the reading classes. But as I said, it has different effects - education, creativity, and it's creating a certain sensibility among the kids. But it also makes them reflect on their own personal past and what they suffered on their journeys. And I think this perhaps a good example of the complexity that art projects can offer.
The role of culture of rebuilding after or during times of crisis is one thing, but what about in regions where there is a lot of censorship or oppression? What role can culture play here?
I want to give two answers on this. There is one thing that the different Goethe-Instituts themselves offer a certain free space, in accordance with the cultural agreement that we have with countries. One example is the Tahrir lounge at the Goethe-Institut in Cairo, where young people meet and discuss the future of their society, do cultural projects and civic education and I think this is an important role that the Goethe-Institut plays as a institute has worldwide. The second thing is that with regard to censorship, art and culture basically require an open and critical society. And of course this is not the case in many of the countries in which we are active, where there is censorship and open oppression. We know on the other hand, that culture - literature, art - provides a certain platform where you can touch on things which perhaps in other circumstances cannot be said in certain societies. So I think culture plays quite a big role in expressing things though its own language that maybe in a censored society would not be possible. So art has a certain role in overcoming censorship, in attacking censorship.
Why is it easier to say really difficult things through art than it is through words?
I remember one artwork. It was a very small thing but it was a photography project during the times of Mubarak when I was working in Egypt, not long before the revolution. In the Tahrir Square there are a lot of advertisements, billboards, and I looked at this photo and thought something was strange. Then I noticed that on every billboard was the smile of Mubarak. It was an open criticism of Mubarak, but you could not attack it because seeing the smile of Mr. Mubarak everywhere, one could also argue that this artist was worshiping him. But in reality, people familiar with art photography and Egyptian society knew at that time, of course, that this was a direct criticism of totalitarian space. It could also have been interpreted as a cynical smile, it could have been interpreted as a kind of mild totalitarianism. So art has its own language, which of course leaves room for interpretation, but people in certain circumstances and of a certain status in society immediately understand this kind of language. And I think this is something that art can do very well.
Johannes Ebert is the general secretary of Goethe-Institut. The German cultural institution will be joining us this summer at the Global Media Forum to discuss "Why art matters: Transnational perspectives in cultural dialogue with Syria and Turkey."
Interview conducted by Sarah Berning