Would you support Novosibirsk as the Russian capital

An interview with Stefanie Peter
I really got to know Russia in Novosibirsk

In August 2017, the director of the Goethe-Institut Novosibirsk Stefanie Peter leaves her post in the Siberian metropolis. In the interview, she recalls the most important and largest projects of the past four years and shares her impressions of Siberia and its inhabitants.

Ms. Peter, the work of a cultural organization depends in many respects on the programmatic accents that are set. What were the thematic priorities of the GI Novosibirsk under your leadership?

I would like to name four important focal points that we have emphasized particularly strongly together with our local partners. First the music. Although I've been a huge music fan before, Novosibirsk has become a real source of inspiration in this regard. The music scene here is really diverse and varied. In 2013, for example, I got to know the avant-garde musician collective “Echotourist” here. Soon afterwards the idea of ​​the music festival "CTM Siberia" arose, a series of events with concerts, parties and workshops. The festival took place in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk and presented European and Russian musicians. Incidentally, many of them received a great boost for their further artistic development. We worked with forms and genres that appealed to a whole new audience. That was a really important and exciting result of our work.
How did you do that? How exactly did you manage to inspire people who normally do not appear here at such cultural events?

It was actually a demanding task. Because even more than in Europe there is a deep gap in Russia - and in Siberia again to a particularly large extent - between the official and the unofficial culture. An artist who looks a bit strange because he wears ripped jeans (and not ripped for fashion reasons, but really ripped ones) will find it difficult to be taken seriously by cultural politics in this region. This is why an entire target group, however educated and creative, is easily overlooked. We wanted to draw attention to such people by integrating them into our projects. The “CTM Siberia” festival, the “Geniale Dilettanten” exhibition, and the performative installation “Conversations from the Darkroom” have contributed greatly to attracting a new audience. Incidentally, here again with the effect that more and more young artists are included in the officially organized cultural context of the city. At the same time, we also organize events of a more classic nature. The audience is already familiar with formats such as the traditional German film festival or our many photo exhibitions, as is the “Siberian Seasons” music festival. Literature is also very important to us. That is why we have already organized many encounters between Russian and German writers, including literary readings with local actors.
Usually our audience reacts cautiously to new formats. Why do you still dare to attempt artistic experiments?

There can be no question of restraint. Our observation was rather that the audience reacts very curiously to innovations. The interesting, not yet seen, seems to be very attractive. We also get into a constant dialogue with the audience about it. I am thinking of the discussions at the film festival or the “Conversations from the Darkroom”, a performative theater installation on the subject of censorship. Thanks to the many local experts involved, including scientists, entrepreneurs and cultural workers, the project was well anchored in Novosibirsk civil society. There was a lively discussion on the Internet about the so-called ghost (an art object that was created in an underpass in Novosibirsk as the result of an artist's residence). But there are also the very intense evening discussions about El Lissitzky, who was a legend of Russian avant-garde art. And, oh - so much more: The list would go beyond the scope here.
Very often they are aimed at children and adolescents.

The profitable perception of art requires preoccupation with it that begins in childhood. That is why arts education is such an important task for us. The potential in younger people is high here. But it depends on the correct address. When young people are growing up in the digital world today, you can't just tell them something about the world cultural heritage. You have to arouse their interest in topics with contemporary means. Hence our workshops for teachers - our speakers want to help them convey films, books and art to their students in such a way that they do not simply parrot authoritarian doctrinal opinions afterwards. A very good example of this: The “Week of Changes” project - it will take place in autumn 2017 in a school in the Novosibirsk district of Dzershinsk. Here teachers and students will redesign the school gallery together with German artists and architects. We think it's a great experiment at the interface between culture and education.
If we have already touched on the subject of education: what about language teaching at the Goethe-Institut Novosibirsk? The institute has recently finally started offering German courses.

When the Goethe-Institut opened its third house in Russia here in Novosibirsk - that was in 2009 - it had two main tasks: Supporting cultural development and educational work, i.e. cooperation with universities and schools where German is taught, and further training for German teacher. At that time we did not have our own language courses - but we supported two certified language learning centers in Akademgorodok and at the State Technical University of Novosibirsk. In 2016, almost eight years after the Goethe-Institut Novosibirsk started working, we made the decision to rethink the structure of the institute. With the effect that we have now very successfully initiated our own German courses and hope to expand the offer. From August we will be offering such courses in our own premises.
The Goethe-Institut Novosibirsk has many partners, and the number is growing. How should the cooperation with local institutes and cultural workers ideally work?

We used to be approached and said: “Let's do something together, but we still don't know exactly what”. We got so many requests of this kind that we couldn't respond to all of them. We also barely had the capacity to work out very vague concepts until they were finally convincing. But a lot has changed. In the meantime, more and more potential partners come to us with very specific suggestions. I attribute this to the fact that our cooperation and networking has continued to improve. In autumn we are planning an exhibition project on the subject of computer games together with game developers and game designers from Akademgorodok and the most important Novosibirsk cinema. This will further expand our audience and create new synergies, especially in Novosibirsk: after all, the city has produced world-famous mathematicians and today has a strong IT industry. It's about being in constant dialogue and learning from one another. The cultural development in Siberia and the Far East raises questions that we can only answer together.
You mentioned your efforts to strengthen cultural networks between distant Siberian cities such as Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Tomsk and Vladivostok. What does the exchange with neighboring countries and with Eastern Europe look like?

The Goethe-Institut Novosibirsk is involved in numerous projects in our region "Eastern Europe-Central Asia". At the end of last year we started a journalistic project here at the institute: the trilingual web platform for young readers "Converter" - with contributions from authors, bloggers and photographers from Russia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ukraine and Belarus. We want to intensify the exchange between the countries of our region and Europe. All texts appear in German, Russian and English.
How will you remember Siberia?

I got to know a lot of wonderful people here. Although a certain distance at the very first meeting always confused me. Then, however, many contacts developed incredibly warmly and cordially. I think you just have to wait a bit here and sometimes take the first steps.

Perhaps one cannot describe Siberia more aptly than with a well-heard sentence: “This is not Moscow here!”. And it's also true: Novosibirsk is really not Moscow. On the one hand, you can be happy that things are possible here that would never be possible in the capital. On the other hand, there are also negative aspects: the strong centralization of Russia and the exploitation of other regions by Moscow has always been a major problem. But, to be honest: I am very happy that I was able to get to know Russia through the “back door”. Viewed from Novosibirsk, one learns to appreciate the cultural opportunities that Moscow and St. Petersburg offer in particular. At the same time, however, I also got to know a concentrated life that is only found in the provinces with this intensity. That probably sounds very pathetic now: But I am very grateful to Novosibirsk that I got the chance to really get to know Russia here. And since our Goethe-Institut is not only active in Novosibirsk, but in all of Siberia and the Far East, I was also able to travel to the easternmost point of Russia, to Vladivostok. That's how I really got to know the entire cultural and geographical wealth of the region.
How are you doing now? Will you miss your colleagues from Novosibirsk?

Since I've been head of the Goethe-Institut Novosibirsk, our team has grown a lot, and not just in terms of the number of employees. We have overcome many crises and experienced successes together. It is sad to leave this team now. I will first return to Germany and work in Munich at the headquarters of the Goethe Institute. And in 2018 I'm going abroad again. So I will discover new places and meet new people.

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