On the borderline

Visionary cultural leader Krzysztof Czyzewski has used the arts to galvanise communities and unite disparate groups of people. Now he’s putting his talent to work on the 2016 European Capital of Culture

Every year in the small Polish town of Sejny, near the borders with Lithuania and Belarus, a group of young people gather to stage a play based on the region’s history. Launched in 1996, Sejny Chronicles sees the town’s children interview older members of their community, gathering stories and legends, and then perform the tales on stage. As Sejny’s history evolves, so does the production.

‘We wanted to create a project which would embrace all the groups, cultures and minorities of Sejny in a common story,’ says Krzysztof Czyzewski, co-founder and president of the Borderlands Foundation, which launched the scheme. ‘That didn’t exist before. Each national minority and religious group had its own story, narration, history, language and schools. Everything was separate. Through this project we reinvented what we call the agora, the common place where all people have their place, can take part – and belong to one community, one story.’

‘We wanted to give borderland a positive meaning – a richness in cultural dialogue and creativity’

Connecting the distinct communities of Poland’s borderlands through arts and culture is the ambitious aim of Czyzewski’s foundation, launched in 1990. ‘On the one hand, our mission was to prevent the eruption of new tensions and conflicts in the post-Soviet territories, which had previously been frozen by the [Soviet] totalitarian system,’ he says. ‘There was no open discussion or debate about the traumatic memories caused by the wars and conflicts that came about as a result of creating new states. So there was a lot to do in order to prevent new conflicts.’

‘But at the same time, there was a huge, very interesting rich heritage of multicultural co-existence in these borderland territories. We wanted to give borderland a positive meaning – a richness in cultural dialogue and creativity.’

Embodying this bridge – between the past and today, between groups of people – is something Czyzewski is personally invested in. ‘I grew up in a rather homogeneous community in Poland. All the education we received [taught us] that there were no other groups in our society, which of course was not true. From the end of the 1970s I began to make expeditions to eastern Poland where traditional culture remained vital. At that time I discovered a new face of my country, many other cultures and religions.’

Czyzewski became involved in the avant-garde theatre scene, working at the Gardzienice  theatre near Lublin between 1978 and 1983. But he says his work became limited to festivals and artistic circles. ‘So at that time I wanted and needed to go directly to the local society, community, to the ground, to the borderlands. So we moved to Sejny, where there were also Ukrainians, Roma Gypsies, and people with Jewish heritage.’

Another of Borderlands’ initiatives is its work with Klezmer musicians. Historically the musical tradition of Eastern European Jews, Klezmer had largely died out in the Sejny region under the Soviet regime, surviving only through people who had emigrated to the US and elsewhere. ‘We invited New York-based descendants of our region to come back to run workshops with local musicians, introducing them to the Klezmer tradition,’ says Czyzewski. ‘We built this bridge for people living in America to come back to their roots, and at the same time for the younger generation living in the borderlands to continue the Klezmer tradition.’

‘Of course, not continuing it in a traditional way,’ Czyzewski adds quickly. ‘That’s not the way we work as a foundation. We’re combining new music, hip hop, jazz, experimental electronic: it’s a new wave of music with a link to the past.’

Czyzewski has taken the foundation’s model to other borderlands, running cultural exchange programmes in Caucasus, Central Asia, Indonesia, Bhutan, the US and the UK. ‘When we began our work, we went to the margins of countries, the outskirts. But now, because of globalisation and multiculturalism, there are borderlands in big cities.’

Using culture to galvanise urban communities will be even more important for Czyzewski in the coming years; he is an artistic director of Wroclaw’s European Capital of Culture programme for 2016. ‘My work in Wroclaw is very much about avoiding what I call the “festivalisation” of culture,’ he explains, ‘or spending the major part of the public culture budget on big events. I’m trying to develop a new philosophy and new practices in cities, based on citizen engagement, on making people procreators of artistic events.’

Ensuring that the 2016 programme has genuine long-term effects for the city and its inhabitants is crucial. ‘We want to initiate a creative factory in the city, and wake up its creative and cultural potential. Of course we will programme co-productions with international partners, and invite many people to the city, and be open to that; but at the same time we don’t want to loose this opportunity to make culture more related to the city, its development and challenges, to its social capital. It’s a huge challenge to make culture relevant. That’s my role here in Wroclaw, to somehow transmit my borderlands experience with local communities to the context of a metropolitan city.’

Preparation for 2016 is taking the form of artistic laboratories, where creative studios are opened up to create co-productions with Wroclaw citizens. Beginning this year, a lab for new opera will explore the future of the art form by looking to its roots, where local people met in taverns to sing, and the librettos were connected to the social context of their lives. ‘We’re inviting people from different social backgrounds, doing artistic workshops, and then creating a libretto and composing new music,’ Czyzewski says. ‘After three years we’ll have a new opera which will premiere during 2016 after this process of lab work. Of course the production will include skilled opera artists from Poland and Europe, but people from Wroclaw will also become part of it.’

‘When we began our work, we went to the margins of countries, the outskirts. But now, because of globalisation and multiculturalism, there are borderlands in big cities’

In addition to his efforts with the Borderlands Foundation and the ECC 2016, Czyzewski is a poet, writer, actor, activist, and president of the board of Eastern Partnership Congress of Culture. He has published several books on this idea of cultural dialogue across borders, and has won numerous awards.

What drives him, it seems, is an ongoing endeavour to make art relevant and engaging for everyone. ‘I believe we are facing a revolutionary period. We need a new kind of counter-culture to follow the commercialisation and consumer-oriented culture we are so strongly immersed in right now. I’m trying to find the alternative, to open new horizons.’