The Goethe-Institut in Belgrade adapted its programmes to the conditions imposed by the pandemic, preparing for the time when it will again be possible to function without the threat of the virus
The commemorating of this year’s great jubilees – the 30th anniversary of the reunification of East and West Germany and the 50th anniversary of the establishing of the Belgrade centre of the Goethe Institute (Goethe- Institut) – has been adapted to the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that didn’t reduce the quality of the celebrations. Apart from these major anniversaries, here we also discuss the experiences of the previous seasons for this German cultural centre with its director, Frank Baumann.
Unification is at the very foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany, so commemorating the anniversary of your country’s reunification will serve to remind us all of one good example and good practise. During this year, the Goethe- Institut commemorates half a century of its existence. How will you mark these jubilees?
– Yes, 50 years of the Goethe-Institut in Belgrade is certainly something special; something to be proud of, to be thankful for and to prompt us to stop for a moment, looking both back and forward at the same time. The official reception should have taken place in June, with some high-ranking guests from Serbia and Germany. And a big fat party with some cool live music and all of our friends, clients and partners around, in a cheerful mood, down at Dorćol Platz – that was the idea. The Coronavirus pandemic destroyed everything, as you can imagine. What remains are memories of 50 years of the German culture and language in Belgrade, good years mainly, though some tough ones as well, and one of the strangest right now. But no complaints, many people paid a much higher price than cancelling a single event. For the culture scene, both the independent and the state-run, it’s a disaster. I wish someone could see some light at the end of the tunnel, but this nasty virus probably came to stay for a while longer.
Regarding the commemoration of 30 years of the reunification of the two Germanys: well, to me that’s first of all a political date, a historical landmark, and as such it’s up to our Embassy to communicate. I’m sure they will, probably in some combination with the current German presidency of the EU, which would make sense to me. When it comes to culture and ordinary people, we could discuss the extent to which Germany is unified today. To a certain degree, it’s still a divided country, not only between east and west. The Coronavirus alone makes no difference.
50 years of the Goethe-Institut in Belgrade is certainly something to be proud of, to be thankful for, and to prompt us stop for a moment, looking both back and forward at the same time
How did the Coronavirus pandemic lead to changes in the Goethe-Institut’s plans? Which programmes did you have to cancel or postpone? Judging by announcements on the Institute’s Facebook page, you maintained a very rich online programme.
– Well, first of all our ongoing language courses were paused. We had to stop them immediately, and those which were about to start were cancelled. Luckily, a vast majority of our students agreed to continue by switching to an online format. The language course office promptly coordinated this with our teachers, who did their very best to make it happen, though it came over them just out of the blue, but mutual goodwill on each side made it a success for most of our customers and colleagues. We even extended our online portfolio during the lockdown phase and saw a significant increase of interest in this format.
Regarding cultural events, we had to cancel or postpone performances of several German authors (Noor Kanj, Marion Poschmann, Robert Menasse), as well as several exhibitions, among which “Missing Stories” was an incredible loss. This is a highly rated international art exhibition on forced labour under the Nazi occupation. Two years of work, a grand opening at the Salon of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, and then – back to storage. It will be continued, hopefully, in 2021. Still, we did our best to use the potential of the all-round virtual space. For example, we presented a digital exhibition, “Abandoned” by Sanja Latinović, through our YouTube channel. The panel discussion with the artist happened on Instagram. That’s also the place where we later celebrated World Book Day. It worked pretty well, even if all these streaming actions cannot replace personal contacts, as everybody now knows. Still, we’ll stick to it in the future and keep having online talks on literature. In June we presented a music documentary as a live premiere by Belgrade-based saxophonist and composer Hayden Chisholm on our YouTube channel.
Also in June we started the experiment of a real exhibition in the gallery of our library. It turned out to be extremely challenging to follow all health recommendations and restrictions of the Serbian government and the World Health Organisation. However, given that not everybody feels comfortable to come around personally despite all measures being taken, we keep on streaming everything for remote use.
Apart from our own online events, we did our best to keep in touch with our audience on social networks, sharing relevant German content, such as virtual exhibitions from important German museums, online concerts and DJ sets, even films for free streaming etc.
Finally, our so-called e-Library, which has been very well known to our regular readers in Serbia since 2014, has been used more frequently than ever during the past few months. With its huge offer of German e-books, films magazines etc., as well as regular updates, it has become one of our most popular online content.
People in Serbia know exactly why they’ve chosen German and the Goethe-Institut – better business opportunities in Serbia and job opportunities in Germany
It can be said that the Goethe-Institut has a comprehensive programme of German language courses – for both beginners and experts. Are you satisfied with the response; how do you compete with the popularity of the English language?
– Yes, we have a wide range of courses from the age of six onwards, as well as many different course formats – super intensive, two extensive options, online and blended learning, which is 50% in person and 50% online. Something for everyone! We don’t feel like we have to compete with the popularity of the English language that much, since speaking English is a given now and most children learn it at school from an early age. German is usually a second foreign language that people in Serbia learn and they know exactly why they’ve chosen German and the Goethe-Institut: better business opportunities in Serbia, as well as job opportunities in Germany, further education in a German-speaking country, to name a few.
Škograd is one of many programmes with which the Goethe-Institut is present in our area. How is progress being achieved for this open classroom in which schools and local communities cooperate in sorting out their local environment?
– Thank you for this question. The long-term cooperation with the (still young) Škograd crew is one of our beacon projects. It’s based on a civil society platform that we established a couple of years ago, called “Next Generation”, and aims at fostering a new understanding of the school/town relationship in a specific environment through mutual participation.
The focus of the activities is on a suburban area of Belgrade, the agglomeration of Ledine, established not too long ago, with its inhabitants facing quite a few challenges and open issues. So, on the basis of numerous activities organised by Škograd in cooperation with local school kids, the activists developed a kind of methodology that was previously presented at several conferences outside Serbia.
Sharing experiences with other expert groups from Germany and other countries strengthens the position of Škograd, enhances their networking and, finally, helps to continue the beneficial work for (not only) underprivileged kids in local summer schools, but also open classroom formats (“Infrastructure of hope”), among others. For the latter, Škograd was just awarded by the 2020 Belgrade Salon of Architecture / BINA, and I really hope that this cool initiative (one for our children that are about to grow up) will remain an integral part of the city’s cultural landscape.
The Goethe-Institut traditionally collaborates on many important festivals that are held in Belgrade, to mention only BITEF and Beldocs. How has this year’s cooperation been realised, given the changes to conditions as a result of the pandemic?
– The novel COVID-19 outbreak also caused many changes in realising our planned programme activities in the realm of arts and culture. Strictly following current epidemiological rules, our traditional partners, Bitef and Beldocs, have managed to be among the rare festivals presenting their programmes in September, alongside the safest place – online, also in physical spaces such as squares, open-air cinemas etc. The 13th Beldocs presented i.a. seven carefully chosen German documentary productions and co-productions.
Through this year’s cooperation with Bitef, everyone involved in the project was facing the importance of quickly finding alternative ways of doing things, caused by many uncertainties in every respect. As an outcome, the German guest performance “Uncanny Valley” of Rimini Protokol and Kammerspiele Munich was one of two solo lecture performances presented at the Prologue Edition of the 54th Bitef festival. The digital body of a performer (German author Thomas Melle) on the stage of Bitef Theatre raised many important issues, wonderfully mirroring the momentum.
During this time when we’re talking for CorD, it is almost certain that the traditional Belgrade Book Fair won’t be held this October, though that has not yet been confirmed officially. If the Fair is cancelled, do you plan to present the latest editions of German publishers in some other way?
– Well, of course we couldn’t replace or at least compensate for activities of German publishing houses. It’s just a very small window to some carefully selected releases of the book market that we could contribute. But Goethe- Institut used to present itself at the Belgrade Book Fair together with other European cultural institutes at a common EUNIC stand, until 2016. In 2017 Goethe-Institut was widely present as a partner of the joint project “4 Countries, 1 Language”, presenting the literature works of four German-speaking countries as “guests of honour”.
We later decided to support the Book Fair by organising different events prior to it, or in the context of it, such as the EUNIC conference for librarians “What kind of library do we need?”, which took place at the National Library of Serbia in 2018. As far as I know, something similar won’t happen this year, as it was too complicated to organise it in an online format. But, given that the Belgrade Book Fair is the biggest and most important event of its kind in the entire Western Balkan region, I’m sure this is just an exception due to the overall situation.