Michael Kurzwelly: The Real Europe exists in Borderlands

fot Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat

By the end of October, Cross-Border Talks team took part in Transbordering Laboratory – a conference in Slubice and Frankfurt (Oder). The event, held in Polish-German borderland, hosted representatives of a dozen of other transborder city pairs and included an exhibition centered around the concept of cross-border space. Also, its aim was to create a network of transborder city organisms, to exchange experiences and promote cooperation everywhere in Europe. One of the city presentations, co-authored by Vladimir Mitev, featured Ruse and Giurgiu.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat interviewed Michael Kurzwelly, artist and creator of the idea of Slubfurt – a transborder city uniting Frankfurt (Oder) and Slubice. He explains his intentions to create a space in-between, a space beyond borders, a space of solidarity. He also point out why he believes that his work, which he calls, which he calls ‘creating reality as an applied method’, is even more valid nowadays than it was in 1999, when the Slubfurt project was launched.

If we could go back to the very beginning, what was the very origin of the Slubfurt ideat? What inspired you to reach to the Polish side of Oder river and start this cross-border project?

I think this has to do a lot with my own personal development. I come from Bonn, and I did my civil service instead of going to the army in France. I lived three years in France. Then I came back, I studied arts, and then I got to know my first wife from Poland. In 1990, I moved to Poznan. All the time I felt somehow in between: I came back from France and it took a long time to get into German reality. And when I moved to Poland, I did not speak a word in Polish. I learned the language like a child learns.

My children are German Poles, they have both nationalities. My daughter is living now in Poznan. My grandchildren are living in Poznan, and my son is living in Göttingen.

I adopted to the life in France. I adopted to the life in Poland. I learned the language and I learned to love the music of the language, because it is part of the music of the culture.

However, I never became really totally Polish, just like I was not totally French – but also I got the feeling that I’m not totally German anymore. And when I came here, I found that this is a very good place to show this idea of an identity in between.

This is a really good feeling! I can live in many cultures at one time – in a way it is also richer than a single, national view on on the world.

So when I came here, to Frankfurt and Slubice, it was kind of natural for me to try creating a new non-national narrative, because I saw how many stereotypes existed on both sides. In fact, they still exist. Among the Polish people, there is this thinking that Germans are all little Nazis, while some Germans still think that Polish people steal things etc. I tried to create a new narrative for both sides.

This began in 1999, so when people ask me about the idea of Slubfurt, I say: the city was founded in 1999.

Who were the first citizens of this city?

First, I was acting in the framework of the local art association in Frankfurt, and I made a first big art project with around 636 artists working in family homes on both sides of the river: in Frankfurt and in Słubice. And then I started to use the name Slubfurt, and the art association members, who were more traditional, asked: is this still art or is this not art anymore?

There was one guy, Matthias Schmidt, an artist from Hamburg. He was in the home of Monika Łozińska and he was just sitting with a machine to produce keys in front of the door. Everybody who came could get the key and should open the door himself. Inside was this woman, Monika, sitting, collecting money to help a house for orphans in Bielsko-Biała. She was there and told her story to everybody who came in. His artwork was kind of giving her a stage, a platform to speak. The artists association did not understand this kind of things. So I thought that I needed to create my own association to do my own things. After that, I gathered a group of people interested in the Slubfurt idea and making this idea come into being.

Frankfurt seen through Oder, from the bridge connecting the German city with Słubice, Poland.

More than 10 years after creating Slubfurt and many years after the Polish-German border was widely opened, what, in your view, is stronger – the sense of belonging to a cross-border local comunity or the stereotypes that you mentioned?

I never intended to do something against the stereotypes, but to find my space. My space has been in between and I tried to define my space. And my idea is to create a new reality as an applied method.

I started to play with all the symbols that national state uses to make people believe that they exist. As I said earlier today in my speech, for example, sport is such a symbolic space.

People run with the flag on their chest, they win, and then the whole nation is proud of them. Only one person was running, but the success gives power to the whole nation. This is kind of absurd, but it works.

So I showed all these kind of nation-building techniques to show also the absurd of these techniques. The next stop was step was to create the Slubfurt parliament, to give the people who want to act, who who think this is a good idea, a platform where they can develop their own ideas. Now we have even we have a citizens’ radio, which began its career thanks to the idea of some members of Slubfurt, and now they have their own association called Radio Slubfurt. So there are even some things growing out of the initial idea.

Do you believe that the current generation, the people who are used to open borders and have never lived for long with Polish-German border sealed off, will be even more willing to invent common spaces and to live in them instead of focusing on differences and borders?

It is an ongoing process. So what can I believe? I believe that there is this possibility. But what is going to happen? It is not up to me – I can give something into it, but I never know what is going to happen.

Right now we are stepping back everywhere into national states and adopting strong identities of national state citizens. Perhaps my work is even more relevant now, because it shows how stupid is to close ourselves within national borders, when we are facing transnational challenges and climate change problems.

Slubfurt is a heterotopia: it has a utopian part, but it is living also in daily life. And my motor is this idea of creating a different kind of reality, not based on the idea of national state. Would it come true, when and how – I cannot know.

In the description of your exhibition on cross-border cities, you say: real Europe exists in borderlands. Not in capital cities, not in centres, but in places like Slubfurt, or Nova Gorica/Gorizia, or Russe/Giurgiu. What do you mean by real Europe in this context?

We are all the time talking about Europe. Europe is, until now, mainly an economic union, not a social union. For instance, there is no common health care, there are national systems. Also, I think that most of the people, when they vote in European elections, they do not feel it because the European Parliament has, in fact, very little to say. It is the European Commission that is taking decisions, and the Commission is composed of different governments’ representatives.

The Transbordering Laboratory

We still do not have a real democratic and republican structure for Europe. And I believe that Europe should become a republic in a way.

But what can I do?

The politicians are doing their work and we are doing our work, and this is here in the border regions that we really come together.

In big cities, you have different communities, but here this being together is much stronger, it is a part of everyday life. That is why I think that our way of living and what we are creating has a much stronger importance.

Also, there is a dialectical relation between big cities, capital cities, big urban areas and the periphery. I like inversing the default setting by putting border regions in the centre of interest. I say: if we manage to develop border regions, we will overcome the idea of nationalism.

Have you encountered any serious obstacles during the project? Have you met, for instance, people who are absolutely against the transborder cooperation?

Of course I’m meeting such people all the time! Right now, there is PiS on the Polish side, and there is AfD in Germany. They become especially active during the elections time, and there was even one moment when they said that Slubfurt and all the related events should be eliminated, because it was a misuse of tax money.

In any case, I am interested to reach out to people who are for the transborder cooperation, not against. I prefer to create things together instead of fighting against something because I think this loses too much energy. I think it is better to create something new than to fight against something old.

Bridge Plaza, a space open to everyone, is a key point in the Slubfurt space / photo by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat

How is the perspective of cross-border co-creation and co-operation changing now when this border area is no more Polish-German only? With refugees and migrants coming, there are more and more nationalities involved in social life.

This is something I have been very happy about. In 2014-2015, lots of people came from Syria, Cameroon, Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and so on. In Slubfurt, if you come, you directly get your identity card. In our non-national city, we do not have a problem with seeking and granting asylum. When you come, you are a member of our society, you can join the Slubfurt parliament work and you have the right to vote. On the one hand, they liked this idea. On the other hand, they said: this odes not really help us to to get asylum in Germany, in the ‘parallel world’, let’s say.

That is why we built up a structure, a helping structure for these people together with the Protestant community. We found a way to secure asylum for them according to the Dublin procedure. We found the advocate who defended them for free without taking money.

Now, everybody who needs some help can come on Wednesdays and Saturdays to our Bridge Square and we look how we could help in solving his/her problems. This is how the idea of creating a society of solidarity lives on.

We are not looking at the the identity cards or passports of people. We just see people with different problems. Polish, German, Ukrainian, Cameroonian, Somalian, Syrian, Afghan – it doesn’t matter. There are people who need help and we try to find ways to help them.

What is the future of Slubfurt? Could it once form a federation with, for instance, the not so far neighbours of Gubin/Guben? How can this conference help the idea of transborder cities advancing solidarity and cooperation?

What we tried first was to develop the concept of the New America (Nowa Amerika), the whole cross-border region. This turned out, in fact, to be very difficult. In Slubfurt, this is easy: we meet every day. If you do not meet regularly, any project can just disappear.

After our conference here, everybody goes home. Then everybody has got their own problems and might forget about the once-sketched cooperation projects. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to creating a network out of this conference, a network which would be making new projects together and working together. After these presentations of participating cities, we will discuss about the first projects to do together, perhaps many different small projects linking to each other.

The three co-authors of the exposition on transgressing borders and creating common spaces: Michael Kurzwelly, Miha Kosovel (Nova Gorica/Gorizia) and Tanel Rander (Valga/Valka).

However, I think that a proclamation that all the border regions of Europe have common ground, that they are all in a way a Nowa Amerika is a strong proclamation that links us all together, despite all different local contexts. The next step is the question of solidarity. We must decide what we can do, as a network, to support the people of, for instance, Ruse/Giurgiu who want to develop something together.

Of course, we can also make a public work and lobby for practical integration idea. For example, one extremely practical idea could be to make the European Parliament decide that in each border region, both languages would be officially used in administration and that all kids would learn both languages at school. This would be an idea that opens up…

After all these years of cross-border work, are you rather excited about meeting people or more less optimistic about the overall perspective?

There was a phrase I could cite here: I feed myself by spreading out energy. This is how I feel about continuing my work.

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