With activities frozen and funding crippled, the existence of cultural organisations is threatened in many countries worldwide. How to respond rapidly and creatively? House of Europe in Ukraine, a EUNIC project supported by the EU and led by Goethe-Institut, has created four new grant schemes in response to the current crisis. Christian Diemer, head of the programme, speaks about the specific challenges Ukraine is facing today and how the project wants to steer creativity towards the digital sphere.
‘We need to produce evidence that European solidarity is a source of effectiveness and leadership’
What are the specific challenges for the cultural and creative sectors in Ukraine as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Everything got cancelled and shut down, just as elsewhere. The difference in Ukraine is that there is hardly a safety net. A lot of cultural activism and creative entrepreneurship relies on idealism and personal resources. State and private support for culture and civil society is a relatively young, although praiseworthy phenomenon in Ukraine, not even to talk about the non-existence of a welfare state. In the wake of the pandemic-induced economic crisis, cultural budgets get shredded – and with state bankruptcy looming, this may even appear as collateral damage. Yet the innovativeness and at the same time societal relevance of cultural action are one of the country’s biggest assets as a free, progressive, European democracy – and they are at stake now.
What role can House of Europe play in this current context?
Ukraine, pressured not only by the pandemic, but also by the teething troubles of young statehood and by its imperialist bully in the East, now needs our support more than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic is a problem beyond borders, and yet authoritarians and nationalists want to steal the show from transnational reconciliation and cooperation, as embodied by theEuropean Union. With its 12.2 million euros, EU-funded House of Europe is a small mosaic stone in this global trial of strength.
“House of Europe is a reliable partner of the reformers in Ukraine and a catalyser of fresh, transnational ideas“
If House of Europe can help produce evidence that European solidarity is more than fine-weather drivel and bureaucracy, as cynics would have it, but rather a source of effectiveness and leadership in difficult times, we should use every moment to do it. As House of Europe we cannot help that Ukrainian change agents are grounded, unable to travel, develop, create, perform, and befriend with their EU colleagues. But besides impactful funding, we can indeed offer international insights, methodologies, connections, and exchange – which in turn may spark innovations and solutions. In the best case, House of Europe can take its role not just as a reliable partner of the reformers of this country, but also as a catalyser of fresh, transnational ideas to outsmart this crisis.
You have created four new programmes in response to the current crisis: a hackathon, infrastructure grants, digital cooperation grants and an online university. Was it difficult to reallocate resources in such a short-time frame and introduce such a broad digital offer?
The challenge is considerable. It demands extreme flexibility from all involved. Here I have to applaud to every single in the 27-member House of Europe team here at Goethe-Institut Ukraine, all locked in at home, who fearlessly embarked on this. Managers who a moment ago had run mobilities or study tours switched over to researching online courses and how to pay out mass emergency stipends. Team members even pressed ahead volunteering to help other departments as those got overrun with crisis response applications. After all we as a team can only take the bull by the horn. Everyone feels, despite of stress and strain, that in those days our joint hard work, quickness, and resourcefulness can really make a difference.
In that regard, I also want to point out the role of the European Union Delegation here in Ukraine, who at a very early stage made clear to us that we need to react radically, and precisely identified House of Europe as one meaningful tool in their hands to help quickly and un-bureaucratically. The measures were then discussed and found broad support among the EUNIC Ukraine cluster members – they form the Steering Committee of House of Europe and once more took an extremely constructive and supportive role in this highly dynamic process.
In the last weekend of April, you organised a hackathon at which many participants were involved. Did you expect such an interest? How did you manage to cater for it?
The initiative for this experimental format originated from Goethe-Institut. Creating a brand-new format within weeks, bridging the gap between arts and IT, short-circuiting business pitching and non-profitethics, and all that relying exclusively on online technologies – the Hackathon was a wild ride. We were hoping to pull together 1,000 people, and our expectations were even surpassed. Over 1,300 registered, 1,168 were actively involved, 63 teams made it until the last day. We are also particularly proud of the community of almost 130 mentors, among those the who-is-who of Ukrainian culture and tech scene, and a notable few from all over the EU. This largely IT-and tech-driven format resulted in a steep learning curve for us personally. It also meant a rejuvenation cure for the workflows of an international donor organisation.
The digital cooperation grants call is looking for innovative ideas for collaborative cultural projects. How do you define criteria for innovation particularly in the digital realm?
We trust in the ideas of our applicants. The call is intentionally open and we explicitly encourage experimental approaches and out-of-the-box thinking. We want to see this as a catalyser of new ideas, ideas that we couldn’t even foresee when drafting the call. Thus, any form of cultural expression that resides in the digital realm will be eligible. Also, a digital cooperation project can take a decisively artistic side, but simply streaming a concert won’t be enough here. A precondition of this call is the collaboration between a Ukrainian and an EU cultural organisation – innovation may be a yield of that. Innovation can be embedded in the artistic expression itself (an unusual topic, an unusual constellation of artists), in the way it is delivered (an unusual format, an unusual methodology), or in the use of technology. As for the latter, innovation shouldn’t mean naivety. Often times, digitalisation takes place in a regulatory vacuum coming along with business models that stand or fall with creative content, and yet show little interest in the legitimate, even existential needs of the content creators, such as fair remuneration, data safety, or privacy. By contrast, our support as international donors ought to open up and sustain spaces for the unfolding of free cultural and artistic expression, void of economic and corporate constriction – online just as much as offline.